Thursday, 22 December 2016

Antibiotic Resistance: A Flu Season Reminder

As Christmas approaches, flu season is upon us.  As such, lots of people will be going to their doctors looking for relief and, often, looking for antibiotics. 

Don't be one of them, and don't let your family members be one of them either.

Antibiotics do not work on viral illnesses, which include the cold and the flu. They work against bacteria only, but if we keep misusing them, they might not even work against bacteria pretty soon.

Antibiotic resistance is a phenomenon wherein bacteria evolve resistance to antibiotics and are no longer killed or inactivated by them. It's a natural process - it happened with penicillin back in the 1940s - but it's going way faster than it should because we're not being sensible with antibiotics, and our rate of developing new antibiotics is not keeping up.

As a result, diseases like TB become more difficult to treat and the medication is more expensive and has more side effects. The CDC says that 23.000 people in the US die a year from antibiotic-resistant infections. In the Middle Ages, the black plague (caused by the bacterium Yersinia pestis) wiped out half the population of Europe. Now we treat the plague easily with antibiotics. In short, they're valuable tools we really can't afford to lose.

Here's what you can do:
- Don't take antibiotics for colds and flus (or any non-bacterial disease)
- If you're prescribed antibiotics, take the full course and don't skip doses
- Don't use leftover antibiotics or keep your antibiotics for later
- Vaccinate
- Practise good hand hygiene
- Symptom relief: with illnesses that aren't too serious (like colds), you're often better off going for symptom relief like Strepsils and hot tea than medication.

(I taught these tips to 10-year-olds and they got them. If they can be responsible about this, so can we.)

There are lots of reasons for antibiotic resistance, like how a huge proportion of antibiotics (not necessarily ones used on humans) go to livestock for the meat industry. But sensibly using our antibiotics can make a difference if we all do it.

(A quick note: flu season exists anywhere there's winter, and there are lots of hypotheses as to why that is. One that's supported by experimental evidence is that the flu virus spreads more and survives longer in cold air -- in summer's warm, humid air, cough droplets fall to the ground instead of evaporating and hanging around in the air because there's already so much moisture in the air, whereas in winter it stays in the air -- although that doesn't explain rainy winters ... Info in this bracket from PopSci)

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