Guide to Antibiotic Resistance
Antibiotics are drugs designed to fight bacteria. They are of the “antimicrobial” class, which includes anti-viral, anti-fungal, and anti-parasitical drugs. Antibiotics are particularly interesting because, while they attack bacteria, they are relatively harmless to the bacteria’s host, making antibiotics a popular treatment option for people with bacterial infections. The first antibiotic to be discovered was penicillin in the 19th century, and since then (due in large part to the injuries from World War II) antibiotics have been developed to treat both specific and wide ranges of bacterial illnesses. In order to understand the problem of antibiotic resistance, it is important to understand how antibiotics work on the molecular level and how they differ from other microbes.
How Antibiotics Work
Generally, antibiotics work a few different ways. Antibiotics can:
- Disrupt the formation of the bacterium’s cell wall or cell contents
- Interfere with the bacterium’s protein, DNA, RNA, or folate synthesis
- Interfere with cell membrane function
Occasionally antibiotics are given preemptively to prevent infection, as in certain surgeries. Antibiotics team up with the white blood cells in the body to fight off the bacterium. Typically, antibiotics are taken for a certain number of days at regular intervals to ensure that a sufficient amount of the antibiotic is in the system for enough time to ensure that all the bacteria is gone and will not re-multiply. Some antibiotics must be taken with food, while others are most effective on an empty stomach.
Bacteria vs. Viruses
Bacteria are single-celled, living microorganisms that can survive in all types of environments, including living organisms. While some varieties can survive in the coldest reaches of the bottom of the ocean, others thrive inside human intestines, helping the body break down food. Bacteria multiply through fission. Most bacteria pose no threat to humans. These non-harmful varieties are called nonpathogenic, and make up over 70% of all bacteria. Bacteria that is harmful is caused pathogenic. This other 30% can be classified into Cocci, Bacilli and Spirlla. A particularly fascinating characteristic of bacteria is that when conditions become unfavorable for bacteria, it does not die. The bacteria goes into a dormant hibernation of sorts and becomes a spore. Spores are very durable and immune to disinfection. When the conditions become favorable once more, the bacteria will once again become active. Only sterilization can kill spores.
Viruses are even smaller than single-celled bacteria, commonly called the smallest and simplest life form known, though they are not technically “alive”. Humans are exposed to millions of viruses each day, but only a small percentage of them make people sick. Viruses, unlike bacteria, require living hosts to thrive and multiply. Without a human, animal, or plant, a virus cannot survive on its own. Viruses multiply by taking over cells and redirecting it to produce the virus. They do not create spores and can be killed with anti-viral medication. There are few, if any, beneficial viruses. However they are useful for genetic engineering purposes.
One of the most important differences between bacteria and viruses is that antibiotics can usually kill bacteria, but not viruses. It can be difficult to determine whether a bacterium or a virus is causing an illness, as certain illnesses, including pneumonia, meningitis, and diarrhea, can be caused by either.
Antibiotics are effective against bacterial infections because they kill the living organisms by invading the cells or interfering with processes. But when antibiotics are taken for viral infections, not only do they not work on the non-living virus, they has a dangerous side effect on the bacteria in the body. The process of needlessly exposing bacteria to antibiotics results in bacteria that have become resilient to antibiotics. In order to kill this new, stronger, more resilient bacteria, higher doses or stronger antibiotics must be used. This perpetuates the cycle of helping the bacteria mutate into a stronger strain. Because of this excess antibiotic usage in viral infections, bacteria that were at one time highly responsive to antibiotics have become increasingly stronger and harder to get rid of. It is becoming a widespread issue, one that the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) calls “one of the world’s most pressing public health problems.”
To reduce the risk of antibiotic resistance, practice the following suggestions:
- Treat only bacterial infections with antibiotics. Seek out a doctor and make sure the cause of the illness (bacteria, virus, fungus, or parasite) is known before taking drugs. Allow lesser illnesses, such as colds, run their course to avoid the development of drug-resistant germs. Instead of trying to treat a virus, find ways to treat symptoms.
- Use antibiotic medication properly. Doctors prescribe time periods and dosages because antibiotics are only effective against a bacterial infection if taken in that manner for that amount of time. Do not increase or decrease the dosage, or stop the medication early unless directed to by a doctor.
- Do not take antibiotics that were prescribed for others. Doses and directions for people vary, and some antibiotics can interfere with other medications.
- Encourage hand washing with non-antibacterial soap. Soaps without antibacterial ingredients are still effective at removing unhealthy bacteria.
- Stay home from work or school when ill to prevent the spread of infection.
Scientists and doctors are working on the problem of antibiotic resistance, but until new antibiotics are on the market, it is important that antibiotics continue to be prescribed and used correctly.
The Rise of Antibiotic-Resistant Infections
This article details the fast spread of antibiotic resistance including its origins, its relation to Darwinism, bacterial weaponry, and steps to take in order to solve the problem.
Bacteria vs. Virus
A comparison chart, detailing more specific differences on the molecular and biological level between a bacterium and a virus.
Mechanisms of Antimicrobial Resistance in Bacteria
From the American Journal of Medicine, this article looks at how antibacterial agents work and how new features of bacteria can resist those agents.
Antibiotic Resistance Questions and Answers
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention answer common and uncommon questions about probiotics, the spread of infections, antibacterial products.
Antibiotic Resistance Resources
A useful list of URLs from around the web about antibiotic resistance, microbiology, and other bacteria-related topics.