Flu Season Dilemma: Are Antibiotics Helping Or Hurting Us?

As an avid pill popper, I rely heavily on modern medicine. Headache? Four Advil washed down with a Diet Coke -- problem solved. Feeling the flu coming on? Run to Walgreens and get Tamiflu. Wam, bam, thank ya ma’am.

You’re good as new. Quick fixes, even when it comes to our health, have become the norm. But are those quick fixes and easy-to-get options helping or hurting us?

What about antibiotics and our propensity to take them even when we aren’t sure they are warranted? Our trips to the doctor have become so common that no one ponders whether the antibiotics we’re taking really work for our specific ailments.

You probably haven’t heard of people dying of antibiotic resistance because it’s not the coroner’s go-to cause of death. You are more likely to hear of bacterial infections as a cause of death. However, the estimated number of deaths caused by antibiotic resistance in the 2013 CDC report was 23,000.

This number seems small compared to the 2,059,442 illnesses, antibiotic resistant bacteria are suspected to have caused.

When we first discovered how to beat back viruses by immunizing people, it was a huge victory for the scientific community. We founded antibiotics and began fighting off disease left and right, but the one-two punch doesn’t always work and we may be in for an even bigger Battle Royale.

No one suspected that those wily microbes were still working to beat us, even though we were seemingly killing them off. Every year people dash out to get the flu shot because the disease is constantly changing and adapting – finding new ways to infect us. Bacteria are sneaky little boogers – able to change their DNA and express new antigens to sneak attack our immune system.

They can even pass information on how to become resistant to other bacteria. In non-science nerd terms, if our immune system is Superman, certain bacterial strains are kryptonite and can severely weaken us.

To break it down, one itty-bitty bacterium gets into that hot bod you’ve worked so hard to get in shape and starts to multiply and break down all that good work you’ve done. When the immune system cannot eliminate the bacteria on its own, a special agent antibiotic is called in to wage battle.

Specialized for the particular bacteria, the antibiotic is able to destroy it without hurting the rest of the physique. The pressing problem is that bacteria are becoming antibiotic resistant, which is bad news bears for the human population.

Why is this happening? Well there are a couple of reasons, one being stubborn delinquents who refuse to finish their full round of antibiotics because they start feeling better after a day or two of popping their pills.

Antibiotics are usually prescribed for several days so that they can completely kill off the bacteria. When you stop using the medicine because you feel all better, you allow those bacteria to stay alive and give them a chance to regroup and gain more resistance to the medicine doctors prescribe.

Then, when the same knucklehead sneezes all over the place, the new antibiotic resistant infection is spread to others. Another issue is that antibiotics are overprescribed, which in turn, gives the bacteria more exposure to it and more time to find ways to defeat it.

To be clear, antibiotics are different than vaccines. Vaccines are weakened viruses or bacteria that help immune systems to become resistant to bacteria before exposure or infection.

Antibiotics fight bacteria that have already made a new home in your body. When antibiotics fail, there can be extra doctor trips, possible hospitalizations and extended hospital stays.

That leads to huge increases in costs related to producing newer antibiotics. It’s a vicious and expensive cycle. One of the most urgent threats labeled by the Center for Disease and Prevention Control is the bacterium Neisseria gonorrhea.

Antibiotic resistant gonorrhea sounds like a Lifetime movie waiting to happen and is just the beginning of other prominent ailments that are finding ways to become virulent despite antibiotics.

There are some simple ways to help combat the resistance problem. Number one, like your mom always told you, wash your hands so you don’t get sick in the first place.

Remember to cook your meat thoroughly (that pink stuff harbors disease), and for the love of humanity, take your antibiotics as prescribed for as long as prescribed! Scientists are looking into using vaccines in the place of antibiotics to strengthen the immune system, but the research is in the beginning stages and not yielding extraordinary results.

So to all you wannabe medical marvels who dream of winning a Nobel Prize in medicine, get in the lab and figure it out. The catastrophic potential makes me think of the movie “Contagion” -- bacterial pandemonium, party of four billion.

Top Photo Credit: Flu Season via Shutterstock