First do no harm? 1 in 4 Americans have been prescribed “unnecessary” antibiotics, reveals study

As the world struggles to find a way to deal with the deadly problem of antibiotic resistance, it’s important to take a look at how we ended up in this situation in the first place – and one big factor has been unnecessary antibiotic use. You might like to think that every time you’ve taken antibiotics, it was absolutely justified, but statistics show that one out of every four Americans has been prescribed unnecessary antibiotics.

In a study published in the BMJ, researchers analyzed the insurance records of more than 19 million American adults and children with private insurance from throughout 2016. They discovered that 7.6 million patients, or 40 percent of those studied, had filled at least one prescription for antibiotics during that year.

That wouldn’t be such an upsetting statistic if all those people needed the medications to save their lives, but the researchers say that wasn’t the case. After looking at what the antibiotics had been prescribed to treat, they determined that they were not medically justified in 23 percent of the cases. For example, they were often given to people who had viral and other types of conditions that don’t even respond to antibiotics, like a cough or cold. All told, 10 percent of the children studied and 16 percent of adults got antibiotics that were unnecessary.

In fact, the actual figure could be even higher as the researchers revealed that 36 percent of the antibiotics that were prescribed to the patients studied were for conditions that only need these drugs sometimes. For example, a person with sinusitis doesn’t necessarily need antibiotics – it depends on the specifics of the patient’s case. There’s no telling how much higher the figure could have been had they been able to determine who truly needed the drugs from within this category.

Antibiotics can do more harm than good

These figures may be unsettling, but they won’t come as a surprise to the CDC, who has estimated that as many as one in three antibiotic prescriptions are unnecessary. Some people think that antibiotics are relatively harmless, but nothing could be further from the truth. First, they kill beneficial bacteria in your gut, which you need to fight infections, avoid chronic disease, and metabolize food. They also carry a host of side effects, such as diarrhea, yeast infections, and more serious adverse reactions.

However, the biggest problem remains the rise of antibiotic-resistant superbugs. These strains of bacteria are considered one of the biggest public health issues the world is facing right now, with problems that were once easily treated like skin infections, ear infections and pneumonia becoming deadlier. More than two million Americans develop an antibiotic-resistant infection like clostridium difficile each year, and 23,000 die from the infection.

While doctors certainly have the final say in what prescriptions are written and deserve a lot of the blame here, patients are also part of the problem. Some people pressure their doctors into giving them the drugs because they believe they are somehow better or faster – perhaps because they can indeed save lives when they are truly necessary – sometimes even exaggerating reported symptoms in hopes of getting a prescription.

People also contribute to the problem by keeping leftover antibiotics and taking them when they feel sick – without knowing whether they genuinely need them. Even worse, they sometimes share them with family members or friends in hopes of “helping” them – not realizing they are actually doing the opposite.

Help reduce the superbug problem by ensuring you need antibiotics when your doctor prescribes them. Ask if your doctor is certain that you have a bacterial infection. It’s also a good idea to ask if there are any safer options or if your problem could resolve on its own; sometimes you just need some rest and patience. If you honestly need the antibiotics, be sure to take them exactly as prescribed.

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