A Guide to Antibiotics – Are They Safe OR Harmful

Antibiotics or antibacterials are a type of antimicrobial used in the treatment and prevention of bacterial infection and parasitic microorganisms.They may either kill or inhibit the growth of bacteria inside the body of living beings including human. Several antibiotics are also effective against fungi and protozoans, and some are toxic to humans and animals, even when given in therapeutic dosage. Antibiotics are not effective against viruses such as the common cold or influenza, and may be harmful when taken inappropriately. In general, consuming antibiotic drugs without being prescribed by the physician is doubly and more dangerous than the disease itself.

The very first compound with antibiotic properties was penicillin which was identified by Alexander Fleming. Antibiotics revolutionized medicine in the 20th century and have together with vaccination led to the near eradication of diseases such as tuberculosis in the developed world. Their effectiveness and easy access led to overuse, especially in livestock raising, promoting bacteria to develop resistance.

The era of antibacterial chemotherapy began with the discovery of arsphenamine, first synthesized by Alfred Bertheim and Paul Ehrlich in 1907, used to treat syphilis.

 Are they Safe?

Although there are a number of different types of antibiotics they all work in one or two ways:

  • antibioticsA bactericidal antibiotic kills the bacteria. Penicillin is bactericidal. A bactericidal usually either interferes with the formation of the bacterium’s cell wall or its cell contents.
  • A bacteriostatic stops bacteria from multiplying. An antibiotic is given for the treatment of an infection caused by bacteria. Antibiotics target microorganisms such as bacteria, fungi and parasites. However, they are not effective against viruses.
  • If you have an infection, it is important to know whether it is caused by bacteria or a virus. Most upper respiratory tract infections, such as the common cold and sore throats are generally caused by viruses, antibiotics do not work against these viruses. A variety of antibiotics can be used to treat a wide range of infections. Antibiotics that affect a wide range of bacteria are called broad spectrum antibiotics (e.g. amoxicillin and gentamicin).Antibiotics that affect only a few types of bacteria are called narrow spectrum antibiotics (e.g. penicillin).A narrow-spectrum antibiotic is only effective against a few types of bacteria. There are antibiotics that attack aerobic bacteria while others work against anaerobic bacteria.Aerobic bacteria need oxygen while anaerobic bacteria don’t.In some cases, antibiotics are given early to prevent infection, as might be the case before surgery. This is called ‘prophylactic’ use of antibiotics. Such antibiotics are commonly used before bowel and orthopaedic surgery.The choice of antibiotic mainly depends on the infection you have. The  germ (bacterium or parasite) diagnosed also causes this infection. This is because each antibiotic is effective only against certain bacteria and parasites. That is why an ordinary citizen should not use an antibiotic or give it to any family member as self-medication. This is nothing but the fact, common people cannot pinpoint or diagnose what kind of virus, bacteria or germ has affected the body and can not prescribe the exact antibiotic.For example, if you have pneumonia, the doctor knows what kinds of bacteria typically cause most cases of pneumonia. He or she will choose the antibiotic that best combats those kinds of bacteria.There are other factors that influence the choice of an antibiotic. The list includes:
    • The severity of the infection
    • The health of the kidneys and liver
    • Dose schedule
    • Other ongoing medications
    • Common side-effects
    • A history of having an allergy to a certain type of antibiotic
    • Pregnancy or breastfeeding

Side Effects of Antibiotics- How Harmful are they?

nauseaThere is an abundance of antibiotics available in the market. It is not possible to list the side effects of each and every antibiotic. However to classify most of the common side effects caused by the antibiotics, read through.

Most side-effects of antibiotics are not serious. Common side-effects include soft stools (faeces) and diarrhoea. It might also lead to mild stomach upset such as feeling sick (nausea). Less commonly, some people have an allergic reaction to an antibiotic. Excess heat is generated in the stomach and liver is the complaint by thousands of patients in this regard.

Antibiotics can kill off normal defence bacteria which live in the bowel and vagina. This may then allow thrush or other bad bacteria to grow.

It is important for you to consult your physician in case you notice any of the below side effects:

  • Severe watery diarrhoea and abdominal cramps. These  are the signs of a serious bacterial infection of the gut – Clostridium  infection
  • Shortness of breath, hives, rash, swelling (of the lips, face, or tongue), fainting are signs of an allergic reaction
  • Vaginal itching or discharge are signs of vaginal thrush
  • White patches on the tongue are signs of oral thrush
  • Being sick (vomiting)

To explain a few of these side effects in detail:

  • Antibiotic-associated diarrhoea: Antibiotic-associated diarrhea occurs in patients receiving antibiotics. This  occurs for no explainable reason. Five to twenty-five  percent of patients may develop antibiotic-associated diarrhea. Diarrhea occurs due to an eradication of the normal gut flora by the antibiotic.  Results in an overgrowth of infectious bacteria, such as Clostridium difficult.
  • Vaginal yeast infections or oral thrush (candida species): Antibiotics may also change the normal flora balance in the vagina. This often leads to an overgrowth of fungal species. Candida albicans is a common fungus normally present in small amounts in the vagina. Not only the mouth, gastrointestinal tract, and on the skin and does not normally cause disease or symptoms. However, the fungus may take over when there is limited competition from bacteria due to antibiotic treatment.
  • Injection site reactions and phlebitis: A reaction to an antibiotic can occur if the antibiotic is given intravenously in a vein. Injections site reactions and phlebitis (vein inflammation) can occur with intravenously (IV) administered antibiotics. The vein and area with the IV needle may be red, swollen and hot. An infection may or may not be present. Typically, the needle must be removed and reinserted elsewhere to help clear the injection site reaction.

World Health Organisation Cautions against Indiscriminate Use of Antibiotics

women taking_pillWorld Health Organisation has cautioned that the current practice of indiscriminate use of antibiotics is  leading to resistance to medicines. It also leads to persistence of infections and treatment failure. Lose of immunity is being cautioned by healthcare scientists.

Common infections and minor injuries which have been treatable for decades may once again kill millions. Resistance to antibiotics will make complex surgeries.  Management of several chronic illnesses like cancer can be difficult.

Without effective antimicrobial medicines, a number of common infections such as hospital- acquired ventilator are common. Namely,  associated cases of pneumonia and  urinary tract infections are hard to treat.  Diarrhoea, gonorrhoea, tuberculosis and malaria are already becoming harder to treat.

A recent forecast for the potential human and economic cost estimates 10 million deaths per year globally. 2 to 3.5 percent less global gross domestic product by 2050 if antimicrobial resistance goes unchecked.

The current global antibiotic resistance has resulted from the rampant use of antibiotics by prescribers.  Patients are not completing full treatment courses. There is overuse of antibiotics in livestock and fish farming.  Inadequate control of infections in healthcare settings and poor hygiene are also a common scene.

As much as antibiotics are the most useful medical invention, to use them without indiscretion will result in a dreadful results. Anything used in excess or without caution can lead to damage. Consult your physician before taking any antibiotics and question your doctor on the use and side effects of the antibiotics that are prescribed. Make conscious efforts to minimize the use of antibiotics, and avoid when not required.