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What Causes Resistance to Antibiotics?

By Felicia Dye
Updated May 17, 2024
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Antibiotics, sometimes called antimicrobial drugs, are medicines developed to cure infections caused by bacteria. The discovery and development of these drugs were important contributions to society because they provided cures for illnesses that previously had no cure and helped reduce the prevalence of illnesses that may otherwise be widespread. However, the medical community is faced with increasing challenges presented by resistance to antibiotics. The causes of antibiotic resistance include overuse and misuse of drugs and the mutation of bacteria.

The majority of the known bacteria that cause infections have become resistant to at least one drug, meaning that alternatives often need to be found when treating diseases such as pneumonia and gonorrhea. Tuberculosis is a good example of a disease that has become resistant to multiple antibiotics. It is believed the more antibiotics are used, the larger this problem will become.

This is one reason public health officials are trying to curb the overuse of these drugs. When a person has a bacterial infection and she is prescribed medication, there is a chance the majority of the infection will be killed and a few germs will remain — these few will develop resistance to the drugs. These germs can then multiply, causing another infection for which that same individual will seek another prescription. This contributes to bacteria’s resistance to antibiotics, because each time the drugs are taken, the surviving bacteria can become stronger. To make matters worse, it has been found that bacteria of one type, for example staph, can pass resistance on to bacteria of another type, such as strep.

Overuse also results from people who are careless about their medical treatment. Sometimes people are prescribed antibiotics. However, once they begin to feel better, they abandon the course of treatment, unaware that bacteria are still thriving. Once they begin to take medication again, the bacteria they were fighting have become more resistant and may have mutated, making the antibiotics less effective, if not useless.

Bacteria are not the only organisms that spread resistance to antibiotics. Humans are also responsible for passing the problem along. It is widely recognized that Melanie can sneeze and her germs can infect John, causing him to develop an infection. What few people realize, however, is that when Melanie sneezes, if her germs are resistant to antibiotics, she can pass that resistance on to John. Those bacteria, once in John’s system, can then pass the resistance on to other bacteria.

The widespread misuse of antimicrobial drugs is another major cause of resistance to antibiotics. When these drugs were first discovered, they were so helpful that they were commonly prescribed for conditions they could not cure, mainly viral infections. These erroneous prescription habits are likely to be partially responsible for current problems. For this reason, much effort is going into informing the public and health community that antibiotics are only effective for fighting bacterial infections.

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