Antibiotic Misuse Leads to Trouble

Monday, November 12, 2012 - 7:30am

Disease Resistant Bacteria Major Consequence

When a parent has to take his or her child to the doctor for a bad cold, a sore throat, or a suspected ear or sinus infection, it is natural for that parent to make sure that some action is taken to address the illness. All too often, that need for action takes the form of requesting an antibiotic.

While antibiotics can be powerfully effective medicines in fighting illnesses and infections caused by bacteria, they are completely useless when they are used to combat a disease caused by a virus. Antibiotics do not work for virus-driven colds, influenza (the flu), runny noses, most coughs, most cases of bronchitis, many sore throats and sinus infections, and are also ineffective in treating some types of ear infections. This means that antibiotics will not cure such illnesses, will not make your child feel better, and will not keep others from catching the bug that made your child sick. Antibiotics also have a variety of side effects, making their unnecessary use even less desirable.

Using an antibiotic in situations where they are not effective can cause the bacteria targeted by this medicine to develop resistance that results in disease-causing bacteria that are harder to kill. Many serious bacterial illnesses are becoming harder to treat, requiring stronger and stronger medicines and/or combinations of medications. Some diseases have developed strains that are almost totally untreatable and other diseases that were considered under control are now reemerging as a public health challenge. Examples include drug-resistant tuberculosis and gonorrhea.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), the public can play a role in reducing the threat of resistance to antibiotics by not insisting that our health care providers prescribe antibiotics on demand. Sharing or saving antibiotics aggravates the problem. Another very important issue is making sure that you take antibiotics always following your physician's instructions. Sometimes people want to stop taking an antibiotic as soon as they start feeling better. But if they yield to this temptation, the remaining bacteria causing this disease, possibly including resistant strains, will have the opportunity to start reproducing again. Not only will the patient be at risk for getting sick again, but they also risk winding up with a stronger, harder-to-treat version of the illness.

Improper disposal of unwanted and unused antibiotics contaminates the environment and provides another potential source of antibiotic resistant bacteria. Until recently, it was considered good practice to flush unused medications down the toilet or put them in the trash. We now know that both of these are very bad ideas. We are fortunate in Dane County to have an active program that allows people to conveniently and safely dispose of all medications without the risk of them getting into our soil and ground water. The MedDrop program provides 11 permanent secure locations across Madison and Dane County where these medications can be safely dropped off; assuring that their disposal will not create any environmental problems or threats. For more information about MedDrop, see the following website:

Another challenge is the widespread use of antibiotics in farm animals. Several studies suggest the misuse of antibiotics by large-scale farming operations may be aggravating the widespread expansion of disease resistant bacteria. While this problem has been largely eliminated in European Union countries, the United States continues to lag behind. People concerned with this problem can explore such possibilities as buying meat from organic - antibiotic free producers as well as urging their elected representatives to support appropriate regulation of these practices.

To help the public better understand the issues of the proper and improper use of antibiotics, the CDC sponsors an annual Get Smart about Antibiotics Week, which this year takes place during the week of November 12th.

For more information and resources about this initiative, see


Public Health - Madison & Dane County


  • Jeff Golden(608) 243-0302