Almost half of Americans don't understand threat of antibiotic resistance

Published: July 05, 2015 06:00 AM

When it comes to the growing threat of superbugs, far too many Americans just don’t get it. That’s according to a poll in June of 1,006 by Consumer Reports National Research Center that showed 41 percent of people hadn’t even heard of antibiotic resistance.

When asked pointed questions about the risks and benefits of using antibiotics, responses were mixed. While a majority of Americans strongly agreed that taking an antibiotic unnecessarily can make that drug less effective for you in the future, fewer people appear to understand the bigger picture. Roughly just half (52 percent) strongly agreed that bacteria that are resistant to multiple antibiotics, so-called “superbugs,” are a major public health problem today. Forty-nine percent strongly agreed that taking an antibiotic you don’t need makes that drug less effective at treating illnesses in other members of the community in the future. Overall, less than half (45 percent) said they’re somewhat or very concerned that this problem might affect their family.

An equally worrisome finding: More than a quarter (27 percent) of people said they think antibiotics are effective in treating colds and the flu (they aren’t—colds and flu are infections from viruses, not bacteria).

In fact, a second poll we conducted in June of 223 people who received a new antibiotic prescription in the past year showed Americans are being prescribed antibiotics inappropriately for illnesses against which the drugs either don't work or may not be the best treatment, such as sinus infections (12 percent), as a precaution after medical or dental surgery (11 percent), coughs or colds (8 percent), and abnormal urinary symptoms (7 percent).

Read about how superbugs spread through the community in our investigative report “The Rise of Superbugs.”

Misconceptions about antibiotics can lead to misuse. And misuse can result in antibiotic-resistant bacteria, which now sicken at least 2.25 million people each year—and kill 37,000. One way you can help the overall problem of bacterial resistance is by not insisting on antibiotics from your doctor for viral infections. And even when you do have a bacterial infection, if it’s mild, ask your doctor about fighting it off on your own without resorting to the use of an antibiotic. Case in point: sinusitis and bronchitis are usually viral. And even when bacteria are the cause, mild sinus and bronchial infections often clear up in about a week on their own. Also many older people are routinely given antibiotics for findings of urinary bacteria, even though they are lacking symptoms of a urinary tract infection. Such inappropriate use of antibiotics can do more harm than good.

Other steps you can take to help keep you, your family, and everyone else safe from superbugs include:

  • Requesting targeted drugs. If your doctor determines you need an antibiotic, ask for a culture to be done to identify which bacteria is causing the infection. That should lead to prescription of an antibiotic that can specifically treat the identified bacteria, rather than a broad spectrum drug that kills more types of bacterial, unnecessarily, as well.
  • Avoiding antibiotic topical creams, unless advised by your doctor. Even antibiotics applied to the skin can lead to resistant bacteria. So use over-the-counter ointments containing bacitracin and neomycin only if dirt remains after cleaning with soap and water.
  • Preventing infections in the first place. That means staying up to date on vaccinations. And it means washing your hands thoroughly and regularly, especially before preparing or eating food, before and after treating a cut or wound, and after using the bathroom, sneezing, coughing, and handling garbage. Plain soap and water are best. Avoid antibacterial hand soaps and cleaners, which may promote resistance.
  • Getting rid of leftover antibiotics. Nearly one out of four people (28 percent) in our poll this past June said they have leftover antibiotics at home. To avoid misuse, dispose of unused antibiotics safely, either by returning them to the pharmacy or mixing them with coffee grounds or cat litter and tossing the mixture in the trash.


Ginger Skinner

Editor's Note:

These materials were made possible by a grant from the state Attorney General Consumer and Prescriber Education Grant Program, which is funded by a multistate settlement of consumer fraud claims regarding the marketing of the prescription drug Neurontin (gabapentin).

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