Antibiotics and other similar drugs (together referred to as antimicrobial agents) have been in use for the past 70 years to treat patients with infectious diseases. Since the mid-1940s, these drugs have contributed greatly to the reduction of death and illness from infectious diseases. However, they have been used for so long and so widely that the infectious organisms that they are designed to kill have, inevitably, adapted to them thus making the drugs less ineffective. Each year across the U.S., more than 2 million people become infected with bacteria that do not respond to antibiotics, with at least 23,000 people dying as a result of these infections.

Antibiotic resistance

Antibiotic resistance occurs when disease-causing bacteria change in order to protect themselves from the action of antibiotics i.e. they are no longer sensitive to those antibiotics. When this happens, the drugs that would have previously stopped bacteria from multiplying or killed them altogether, no longer work. This means that infections such as step throat, pneumonia, or those associated with minor injuries could end up becoming untreatable.

How it happens

Generally, antibiotic resistance occurs naturally. To a certain extent, any use of antibiotics can lead to resistance because when bacteria are exposed to these drugs, some with the ability to resist them survive.

If antibiotics are not used correctly, all or most of the weak bacteria are killed. However, the resistant ones can survive and continue to spread. This makes the prevention of diseases more important than ever.

Some of the leading causes of antibiotic resistance include the inappropriate use or overuse of antibiotics in treating or preventing infections in animals and people. Specific examples of antibiotic misuse include:

· Taking antibiotics in ways other than how they were prescribed

· Giving antibiotics to animals and people when they are not needed

· Taking antibiotics for infections not caused by bacteria

· Antibiotic sharing or self-medicating.

Spread of resistant bacteria

Anyone can be at risk of developing an antibiotic-resistant infection because drug-resistant bacteria spread in much the same way as non-resistant bacteria. Some of the ways they spread include:

· Contaminated surfaces- Bacteria are known to survive and live on surfaces for extended periods of time. You can pick up bacteria, including those that are resistant to bacteria, when you touch everyday objects such as utensils, keyboards, doorknobs etc.

· Person-to-person- Bacteria can be spread between people by sneezing, coughing, touching, or being exposed to bodily fluids (e.g. through unsafe sexual practices).

· Animals- Bacteria is passed from animals to people through direct contact with animal manure, farm or petting zoo animals, or cats, dogs, reptiles etc.

· Water, food, soil- One can be exposed to bacteria by handling, preparing, or eating certain contaminated foods such as vegetables, fruits, poultry, meat, or dairy products. Contaminated soil or water can also infect us by putting bacteria into our food or through direct contact.

· International travel- If you travel often for pleasure, business, or even medical procedures, you could pick up an infection not commonly found at home through contact with food, people, animals, water, or contaminated surfaces.

Reducing the risk of antibiotic resistance

Whenever you fall sick and you think that you may need antibiotics, consider the following:

· Consult your doctor about the right treatment for your ailment and how to use antibiotics responsibly.

· Take the necessary steps to learn how to prevent antibiotic resistance not only for you, but your family as well.