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Are Antibiotics Bad?

By Matt Brady
Updated May 17, 2024
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Like many other medicines, antibiotics have had a proven beneficial impact, helping to stave off bacterial infections that were once difficult to treat. There has, however, been growing concern that the overuse of antibiotic treatments has created dangerous antibiotic-resistant strains of bacteria. Another significant source of controversy has been the use of antibiotic drugs by the food industry, to beef up livestock and increase production, which has led to concerns over adverse effects on animal and human health. Like all medicinal treatments, antibiotics can have negative side effects, which may result from allergic reaction, from misuse, or from the accidental killing of good bacteria alongside bad. As humanity learns more about their benefits and drawbacks, society and the medical community is learning how to tailor the use of antibiotic treatments to ensure they have the healthiest impact.

The discovery of antibiotic drugs in the 20th century was a watershed moment for society and the medical community, on par with the discovery of vaccinations. Whereas vaccinations vanquished deadly viral ailments that people were fairly powerless to resist, such as polio, the flu and tendinitis, antibiotics provided a way to kill bad bacteria that caused formerly debilitating and potential deadly infections, such as tuberculosis, meningitis and pneumonia. Mortality rates due to bacterial infection fell significantly, and the population grew healthier. Nevertheless, as doctors took to prescribing record amounts of antibiotic drugs to treat illnesses, it became apparent that there may be drawbacks to their overuse.

As antibiotics grew more popular, patients came to see them as a regular part of life, and doctors prescribed them in record amounts. This led to an unforeseen problem: certain bacteria began to evolve and grow immunities to antibiotic treatment. The ability for bacteria to mutate in response to treatment has been called antibiotic resistance. Diseases that once seemed knocked out for good by antibiotics made a resurgence. It wasn't that antibiotic drugs were suddenly ineffective, but some of their potency had been lost. This was not only a result of overuse and over prescribing, but of misuse. Society had, to some extent, come to see antibiotic drugs as a bandage for everything, even viral illnesses that they couldn't treat. As a result, today's medical society encourages the use of antibiotics only when absolutely necessary, in the hope that treatments will remain effective.

The use of antibiotic drugs by the food industry has caused concern as well. The agrarian society began using antibiotics in animals for the same reason people use them: to treat bacterial illness. Over time, however, it became apparent that antibiotic drugs could cause weight gain in animals. With cows, for example, the extra weight amounted to significant profits for some ranchers and farmers. Research has indicated that the overuse of antibiotic drugs in animals has led to superbugs, or antibiotic-resistant bacteria, that could be ingested by humans when eating meat. That being the case, a food-related illness in a person might not be treatable with antibiotic drugs. There is also concern about the negative health effects on animals. Respected medical voices such as the World Health Organization (WHO) have urged society to consider the risks of antibiotics in animals, and to curtail their use.

WiseGeek is dedicated to providing accurate and trustworthy information. We carefully select reputable sources and employ a rigorous fact-checking process to maintain the highest standards. To learn more about our commitment to accuracy, read our editorial process.
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