Antibiotics are medications that kill germs that cause infectious diseases. There are many classes and types that are effective therapy against infections caused by bacteria, fungi, parasites and viruses. In 1942 the first antibiotic, penicillin, was effectively used to treat a life threatening streptococcal bloodstream infection in a woman in New Haven, CT.
Since then, hundreds of newer, life-saving antibiotics have been introduced and saved millions of lives from a myriad of diseases.
Despite having these medications to treat them, it is preferable to prevent infections and infectious diseases from spreading in the first place.
Clean water, proper sanitation, better living and working conditions and vaccines have all markedly decreased the number of new cases of infections that previously sickened and killed millions of people each year.
Antibiotics as treatment when vaccination is not an option
If a good vaccine is not available, treating an infection as early as possible with effective antibiotics is required to prevent the severe consequences or death.
In 1981, the meningococcal vaccine, a vaccine that effectively prevents the brain infection meningitis, was introduced. If a child has not received the vaccine, has not had a proper immune response to the vaccine, or prior exposure to the germ itself, then rapid diagnosis and a common antibiotic such as penicillin is used to rapidly kill the bacteria and prevent the devastating and often lethal outcome of this infection.
Diminishing efficacy through misuse
Antibiotics have become widely used and misused over the past 80 years. In many instances they have been over prescribed to treat diseases where they are entirely ineffective. The harm that is caused by using antibiotics in settings where they are not useful is three-fold. First, they have minor side effects that include diarrhea, rash and/or an overgrowth of yeast or fungi. They may have major side effects such as localized allergic or whole body reactions to the drug. And, of most concern to the pediatric population, these antibiotics kill our normal bacteria. When this happens, we become more susceptible to other germs and harder to treat bacteria because the germs become resistant to the antibiotics being used.
Take for example, the child who has conjunctivitis or pink eye that’s caused by a virus. The day care center or caretaker insists on using antibiotics before the child can return to child care. Antibiotics, if used in this situation, have no efficacy against the virus causing the infection. Additionally, the child may develop diarrhea or a rash from the antibiotic. There is also a high probability that the normal bacteria in our gastrointestinal tract and on our skin will become antibiotic resistant, effectively rendering these important drugs useless for the bacterial infections for which we really need them.
It is important to prevent whatever infections we can with basic sanitation and vaccines. We have no cures for the typical cold, cough, stomach “flu” and rashes caused by the childhood viruses. In these illnesses, treatment is properly limited to supportive care that includes lots of liquids, ibuprofen or acetaminophen and rest. Thankfully, normal children develop immunity to these ailments by having weathered these common infections.
The appropriate time to use an antibiotic, is when it is proven to be effective against the germ that is making us sick, and when the side effects and repercussions caused by the drug are minor and outweighed by the risks of the infection itself.
The discovery and use of antibiotics truly marked a turning point in human history- doctors finally had a tool to treat and completely cure their patients of deadly infections. Almost 80 years later, with far more antibiotics available for a myriad of infectious diseases, it is important we use them to treat only the diseases that they effectively cure and not render them useless by misuse and overuse.