What happens when a person becomes resistant to antibiotics?

Knowing the difference in needing and not needing an antibiotic.

When antibiotics are taken too often or for the wrong reasons, they kill off the sensitive bacteria that antibiotics can treat. When this happens, resistant bacteria can grow and multiply, causing drug resistance. Tanya Abi-Mansour, a pharmacist at IU Health Bloomington Hospital who specializes in antibiotics, gives her insight on the dangers of using antibiotics without a prescription and explains what happens when your body becomes too resistant.

“Antibiotics treat bacterial infections by either killing the bacteria or preventing the bacteria from growing,” says Abi-Mansour. When needed, they are an effective treatment. However, many individuals request antibiotics from their provider when their condition does not warrant antibiotic usage, which can lead to misuse and overuse, she says.

“It is sometimes hard for the patient and the provider to tell if an infection is viral or bacterial, since they both have a lot of similarities and are both spread by similar functions,” she adds. Both may cause acute, chronic and latent infections, depending on the severity of the illness.

So what happens when a person becomes resistant to antibiotic treatment? When an individual has an infection caused by bacterium that is antibiotic resistant, this can lead to a more serious infection. It could lead to an increase in hospital visits and a prescription for a more expensive and toxic antibiotic to treat that particular disease.

If individuals overuse antibiotics, they may experience minor symptoms such as diarrhea or their condition may deteriorate leading to life-threatening effects, such as inflammation of the colon. Abi-Mansour emphasizes the importance of elderly individuals, who are diagnosed with chronic illnesses, to be very careful with their antibiotic use since they would be the most vulnerable to this problem.

Another side effect from antibiotic misuse is the potential for superbugs. According to Abi-Mansour, “Since certain antibiotics can drive more resistance when taken too frequently, bacterium start to form that become resistant to multiple types of antibiotics and the bacterium become very difficult to treat.” This emphasizes the importance of only using antibiotics when truly necessary.

Even though these superbugs are not visible to the human eye, the impact they can have on an individual is substantial. Common infections, such as neisseria gonorrhea, are transmitted through skin-to-skin contact and cause side effects such as infertility and abdominal pain.

Antibiotics are also given to livestock in order to prevent disease from spreading. The increasing amount of superbugs can cause more harmful bacteria to come into our food supply and as a result, subject us to life-threatening diseases.

What to Know?

Since antibiotics have a huge impact on public health, individuals should take the time to educate themselves on the proper use of antibiotics, says Abi-Mansour, and individuals should know the importance of keeping up with your overall health. “Washing your hands frequently and keeping up with your vaccinations are some of the most important ways you can stay healthy and avoid antibiotic usage all together.”

History: The first true antibiotic was penicillin discovered by Alexander Fleming, who was the professor of Bacteriology at St. Mary’s Hospital in London. The United States played a major role in production, making the drug widely available for use.

Length of use: Most antibiotics are typically used for 7-14 days.

Common Side Effects: Bad reactions to antibiotics are responsible for 1 in 5 emergency room visits. These side effects may include digestive problems, such as nausea, vomiting, diarrhea and bloating. These symptoms will disappear once an individual stops taking antibiotics.

How they are Provided: Oral (tablets, capsules, liquid), topical (creams, lotions, sprays) and injections.

Common Illness that require antibiotic use: Bronchitis, runny nose, ear infection, influenza, sore throat and sinus infection.

IU Health featured expert is Tanya Abi-Mansour, Pharm.D., Clinical Pharmacist, Infectious Diseases, practicing at IU Health Bloomington Hospital.