Antibiotic resistance

​​What are antibiotics?

Infections can be caused by bacteria (germs), viruses, parasites or fungi. Antibiotics are used to treat bacterial infections, such as pneumonia or a urinary tract infection. Antibiotics do not help to treat viral infections such as the common cold, a viral cough or influenza (the flu)​.

What is antibiotic resistance?

Antibiotic resistance occurs when bacteria change in a way that causes antibiotics to become less effective or to not work at all.

Causes of antibiotic resistance

Antibiotic resistance happens for many reasons. One reason is because antibiotics are used when they should not be, such as:

  • Taking an antibiotic when it is not needed (such as to treat a viral illness).
  • Taking the wrong antibiotic or the wrong dose.
  • Stopping an antibiotic too soon.
  • Using an antibiotic that was prescribed for somebody else.

Antibacterial cleaning products that are used in the home, such as household cleaners or bath products, can also lead to antibiotic resistance . Studies have shown that plain soap is just as good at killing bacteria in the home as products labeled antibacterial. In addition, giving animals antibiotics to promote growth or prevent illness can generate resistance in animal bacteria that can later be transmitted to humans.

How does antibiotic resistance happen?

When bacteria come in contact with an antibiotic or antibacterial, the weaker bacteria die, but stronger ones survive. When the strong bacteria multiply, more and more strong bacteria are produced that are resistant to the antibiotic.

Bacteria become stronger when they change, which reduces the effectiveness of antibiotics. For example, some bacteria can break down antibiotics or prevent the antibiotic from attaching to the site it needs to work.

Bacteria can change more than once so that they are resistant to several antibiotics. This makes some bacteria very hard to kill.

Why is antibiotic resistance a problem?

Antibiotic resistance is a problem because we need antibiotics to treat bacterial infections that our bodies need help to get rid of.

When bacteria are resistant to antibiotics, doctors have a hard time finding other antibiotics that will work to kill the bacteria. This means that if your child gets an infection from antibiotic-resistant bacteria, they can become very sick and more difficult to treat.

Prevention of antibiotic resistance

The following are ways that you can help prevent antibiotic resistance:

  • Ask your doctor if antibiotics are the right treatment for your child
  • If your child needs antibiotics, always give them the full dose that is prescribed.
  • Give your child the full course of antibiotics even if they feel better before the antibiotics are finished.
  • Give antibiotics only to the child for whom they were prescribed.
  • If you have old antibiotics leftover in your house, take them to a medicine disposal program if there is one available in your area.
  • Use plain soaps and household cleaners instead of ones that are labeled as antibacterial.

Safe disposal of antibiotics

Antibiotics that end up in our water supply make the problem of antibiotic resistance worse. This usually happens if antibiotics are flushed down the toilet or poured down the sink.

Many pharmacies have drug take-back programs. If possible, return your unused over-the-counter and prescription drugs to your pharmacy. If your pharmacy does not have a drug take-back program check with your municipality about how to dispose of hazardous household waste, including over-the-counter and prescription drugs.

Key points

  • Most infections like the common cold or flu are caused by viruses and should not be treated with antibiotics.
  • Antibiotic resistance is a serious problem that causes people to have infections that are difficult to treat.
  • Using antibiotics properly, including the right antibiotic at the right dose for the right person can help prevent antibiotic resistance.
  • Plain soaps and household cleaners are safer and just as effective as antibacterial ones for use at home.
  • Disposing of antibiotics properly (not in the water supply) is important to help stop the problem of antibiotic resistance.

​​Sarah Lord, MD

Shaun Morris, MD, MPH, FRCPC, FAAP, DTM&H​​