Ever since penicillin was introduced in the 1940s, antibiotics have been a premier medication of choice for treating bacterial infections. Whenever a person takes antibiotics, the antibiotics start to attack bacteria. Ultimately, if the person taking the antibiotics completes the prescription as directed, most, but not every singe one, of the bacteria that caused the infection or disease will be dead. The remaining bacteria, which have an immunity to the prescribed drug, will continue to reproduce, leading to more bacteria that are resistant to a given drug. Health officials are becoming increasingly concerned about this bacterial resistance because over time, fewer and fewer of the drugs that are available today will be effective to treat bacterial infections.
Bacteria are living organisms and, as living organisms, bacteria mutate. Some of these mutations can be resistant to medications. When these bacteria live after other bacteria die, the resistant bacteria continue to reproduce. Over time, the drug-resistant bacteria may become more numerous than the bacteria that will succumb to a given drug. This means that the effectiveness of the medication is reduced. Today, some bacteria strains are already difficult to treat because of bacterial resistance.
Human behaviors have compounded this problem. For example, common colds are caused by viruses. Viruses are not affected by antibiotics. When a person unnecessarily takes antibiotics to treat a cold or other viral infections during the infections’ early stages, the pool of mutated, resistant bacteria increases for no reason. While doctors often prescribe antibiotics during later stages of viral infections to address secondary bacterial infections, taking antibiotics to treat viral infections "just because" contributes to bacterial resistance.
When doctors prescribe antibiotics, the physicians give directions about how long the sick individual should take the drugs. Sometimes people stop taking antibiotics when they feel better, as opposed to following directions to complete the prescription. This practice allows bacteria to continue to mutate, ultimately leading to more bacterial resistance.
Scientists hope that physicians start to decline to prescribe antibiotics to treat viral infections in an effort to slow bacterial resistance. At the same time, patients need more education to understand the negative effects of stopping treatments early or requesting drugs that do not treat their illnesses. Another concern is developing new antibiotics that can treat immune or resistant bacteria.