What you need to know about antibiotics

They were the miracle medicines hailed for saving millions of lives. But the overuse of antibiotics has opened the floodgates to resistant bugs.

Since being introduced in the 1940s to fight off dangerous illnesses, overuse of antibiotics in recent decades has meant they are no longer always the powerful antidote they used to be.

With half of Australians now being prescribed an antibiotic at least once each year, and concerns antimicrobial resistance (AMR) poses a major public health threat around the world, it’s never been more important to educate ourselves about these drugs.

During World Antibiotic Awareness Week, Australian healthcare bodies are shining a light on the correct use of antibiotics and what we can do to fight AMR.

“We must ensure that antibiotics are only taken when they are absolutely needed, in the most appropriate way for the shortest period of time,” says the Australian Commission on Safety and Quality in Health Care.

“It is an issue that demands action on every level, from individuals, governments and major organisations around the world. Without urgent action, infections and minor injuries could once again become fatal.”

What are antibiotics?

Antibiotics, a type of antimicrobial, are prescribed to treat a range of infections or diseases caused by bacteria.

These illnesses include pneumonia, whooping cough, urinary tract infections, sexually transmitted infections and infected wounds.

They are not effective against viruses and work by killing bacteria or stopping it in its tracks.

What are the risks of using antibiotics?

All medicines carry the potential for side effects, and up to 10 per cent of people using antibiotics may experience issues including diarrhoea, nausea, vomiting and thrush.

More serious but less common problems can include intestinal infections, allergic reactions, fever and breathing difficulties.

“One of the ways an antibiotic can work is by killing the bacteria that causes an infection, which means it can also kill healthy bacteria that are found on the skin and in the gut, for example,” says University of Melbourne senior lecturer in primary care Jo-Anne Manski Nankervis.

She says people can develop infections caused by bacteria that have antimicrobial resistance even after taking the medication for the first time.

This is caused by bacteria changing their structure to stop antibiotics working, with some bugs – sometimes called superbugs – now resistant to multiple different antibiotics.

The Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development has warned that superbug infections could cost 2.4 million lives in Europe, North America and Australia over the next three decades unless more is done to halt antibiotic resistance.

The Australian Commission on Safety and Quality in Health Care says the Australian government in 2015 released the first National Antimicrobial Resistance Strategy in an effort to prevent antibiotic resistance and reduce decrease inappropriate use of antibiotics.

Should we avoid antibiotics?

“The most important thing is for people who need antibiotics to take them,” says Dr Manski-Nankervis.

“They are very important to treat infections caused by bacteria. Your doctor will take a history and examination and sometimes order tests to determine if antibiotics are required.”

Doctors say untreatable infections are still very rare in Australia and a national alert system has been established to help identify and track important resistant pathogens.

How to use antibiotics correctly

  1. Don’t stop taking them when you feel better – use the full course advised by your doctor or contact them to discuss if it is safe to stop early.
  2. Trust your GP if they advise that antibiotics aren’t necessary. But if you aren’t getting better in the recommended time or if you become more unwell, make sure you see your doctor again to get checked.
  3. Don’t use antibiotics for viral infections as they are not effective and may cause side effects and resistance.
  4. Don’t use unfinished, expired packets in the cupboard or fill an old antibiotic prescription if you get sick again.
  5. Don’t take more than your doctor has prescribed. You may not need to use all the tablets or medications than are in the packet.

Learn more about how to take medicines correctly. Got a question about your health? Ask our community pharmacist and qualified herbalist, Gerald Quigley.

World Antibiotic Awareness Week 2018 runs from November 12 to 18.

Written by Elissa Doherty.