Too much of a good thing?

By: Alison Dunn Dec 21, 2010
Too much of a good thing?

I love antibiotics.

Now, before all the naturopathic doctors and holistic health professionals start pelting me with eggs, let me explain. Since Alexander Fleming and other scientists discovered penicillin, antibiotics have been able to rid us of some terrible diseases like tuberculosis, gangrene and so much more. Antibiotics have saved the lives of many people – I guarantee we all know at least one person who has had his or her life saved because of antibiotics.

I do. When my youngest son was two months old, he came down with a terrible ear infection. Now, in most cases, an ear infection wouldn’t be life threatening. But in a baby that young, the ear infection quickly became dangerous. He stopped nursing because of the pain, and I had to pump out breast milk and feed him with a syringe. He was barely getting an ounce of milk per feeding, and my milk supply (never plentiful to begin with) began to dry up quickly. He became dehydrated rapidly and started losing weight almost immediately.

If it hadn’t been for antibiotics, I don’t know if he would have recovered at all, let alone as quickly as he did. I’m not a doctor, but I believe antibiotics saved his life, and for that, I am eternally grateful.

But as wonderful as antibiotics are, I also know that overuse of them can be too much of a good thing. I know that they don’t cure everything – antibiotics only treat bacteria, fungus and parasites, not cold or flu viruses. (If you want an overview of what antibiotics can and can’t do, be sure to check out “Antibiotics to the rescue?” this week on Health Local.)

I also know that antibiotics can cause yeast infections because they eliminate both “good” and “bad” bacteria at the same time. I know that overuse of antibiotics can cause resistance to the drug, and then it can’t do its work when it’s really needed. (A bit like the boy who cried wolf!)

And what I find really scary is the growing prevalence of “superbugs” that can’t be treated by antibiotics as we know them. This is because, as part of the evolutionary process, some bacteria organisms have grown stronger and better able to resist our present-day antibiotics. And while scientists can try to find new strains of antibiotics to help fight these bugs, the fact is that in evolutionary terms, it would appear bacteria are just one step ahead of us.

What to do? I, for one, make sure antibiotics are really necessary before using them. If my doctor tells me to wait for a throat swab to come back positive for strep, I wait. If my doctor tells me a virus, not an ear infection, is responsible for a kid’s earache, I listen. I make sure we don’t take any antibiotics unless it’s absolutely necessary to return us to good health. If it’s not, I just follow his advice on how to alleviate the symptoms until the virus goes away.

So, yes, I love antibiotics. I just know when to use them and when to give them a pass.

A journalist with more than 10 years experience, Alison’s work has appeared in a number of top Canadian publications, including glow, Oxygen, Canadian Running and more. She is the former editor of a number of well-respected Canadian and American trade journals and recipient of a Kenneth R. Wilson Gold Award of Excellence in feature article writing. She is a part-time faculty member at Sheridan College’s journalism department, as well as an avid runner and fitness enthusiast.