According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), antibiotic-resistant bacteria are one of the greatest threats to public health today. While antibiotics are very helpful, they can also be misused, which is one of the reasons resistance has become such a problem.
Antibiotics are medicines that can be used in both humans and animals to kill microorganisms—particularly bacteria—or inhibit their ability to grow. They fight bacterial infections in two ways: some kill the bacteria directly by causing their cell walls to disintegrate, while others can decrease the bacteria’s ability to grow and multiply, making it more difficult for them to survive. Antibiotics are only useful to treat bacterial infections and should never be used to treat a virus.
The significant biological differences between bacteria and viruses make it impossible for antibiotics to target viruses. Bacteria are unicellular microorganisms that have a cell wall but don’t contain any organelles or an organized nucleus. They are found both inside the body and on its outside surfaces, and not all types are harmful. In fact, humans have many helpful bacteria that are a part of their natural microbiota.
Viruses, on the other hand, are infectious agents—meaning that there aren’t any “good” viruses—consisting of a nucleic acid molecule and a protein coat. Smaller than bacteria and unable to live outside the body, they cause illness by invading the body’s healthy cells and using them as a host to feed on, multiply, and survive.
Medical professionals are working to address antibiotic resistance, which occurs when bacteria develop the ability to resist the effects of an antibiotic. Bacteria have developed many ways to resist antibiotics. Some neutralize or nullify the effects of the antibiotic, making it harmless to any bacteria that it may encounter. Others have developed a mechanism that can “push out” the antibiotic before it can affect the bacteria that it was targeting.
Patients often develop resistance by taking antibiotics unnecessarily, such as for viral infections. Yet even when patients take antibiotics for bacterial infections, the sensitive bacteria may be killed while naturally stronger bacteria live on. These survivors replicate and grow into a new colony of resistant bacteria that can survive and multiply, causing more harm.
Antibiotic resistance is a concern not only for medical professionals but also for patients, because these resistant bacteria are tough to kill. Consequently, other drugs may be necessary, causing treatment of these antibiotic-resistant bacteria to become very expensive.
If bacteria continue to become resistant to the most commonly used antibiotics, resistance will likely spread. And before we know it, we will be back to a time like the early ages of medicine, looking for new ways to cure these illnesses.