November is a significant month in health awarenesses, but Antibiotic Awareness Week from November 12-18 may be the most polarizing. It’s also perhaps the most interesting – especially to Baby Boomers (people born between 1946-1964) and GenXers (people born early-to-mid 1960s to the early 1980s). The week focuses on raising awareness “of the threat of antibiotic resistance and the importance of appropriate antibiotic use” – appropriate being the keyword.
Antibiotic resistance can be deadly
Based on emerging research, antibiotics aren’t always the best option. If patients are inappropriately over prescribed antibiotics and take them unnecessarily, the benefits can backfire. People build up a tolerance that can lead to “antibiotic resistance, one of the most urgent threats to the public’s health.”
Why is antibiotic resistance such a threat? Because bacteria that can typically be treated with antibiotics becomes a deadly threat. Recent research shows that “each year in the United States, at least 2 million people become infected with bacteria that are resistant to antibiotics and at least 23,000 people die as a direct result. Many more die from complications from antibiotic-resistant infections.”
During National Healthcare Quality Week, we explored the initiative to prevent healthcare-associated infections (HAIs). Some of these dangerous bacterial infections could be treated with antibiotics, but if someone is resistant to antibiotics, they become deadly antibiotic-resistant infections instead.
Such infections are a significant cause of illness and death — and they can have devastating emotional, financial, and medical consequences. Approximately “ 1 in 25 inpatients have an infection related to hospital care” at any given time. There’s cost of these infections: tens of thousands of lives and billions of dollars each year.
This is precisely why public awareness initiatives such as Antibiotic Awareness Week are so important.
Can antibiotics eradicate chronic back pain?
On the flip side, popular media went wild for a 2013 study that seemed to say antibiotics could be useful and effective when it comes to easing chronic pain caused by chronic conditions. But the backlash was quick. The UK’s National Health Service quickly debunked the media’s assertions and clarified the researchers’ conclusions. Key points from the clarification include:
- “As strong as this research it is, it is not definitive. Further research, most likely with larger numbers of people in the study, will be needed to confirm these findings before any treatment is likely to be approved and licensed for routine use…”
- “Crucially, the study recruited a very select group of lower back pain sufferers who showed small changes in their vertebrae next to the site of a previous slipped disc. This select group therefore is not representative of all lower back pain sufferers.”
- “This research certainly does not advocate giving antibiotics to all lower back pain sufferers.”
- “Even if all these hurdles are overcome, media talk of a ‘back pain cure’ could still be premature. Antibiotics may help relieve symptoms, but there is currently no conclusive evidence that they can correct the underlying causes of chronic back pain.”
Research published in 2017 explored the “clinical effect of antibiotic treatment for patients with low back pain and Modic 1 changes.” These changes are “the result of fissuring of the endplates with the development of vascular granulation tissue adjacent to the endplates, resulting in bone marrow oedema” and are frequently seen in those who experience lower back pain. Their conclusion: antibiotics for the treatment of low back pain in relation to Modic 1 changes “did not generally provide significant improvement in pain and function for patients in this small cohort. Despite early excitement regarding this treatment, further research is required.”
Lifesaving drugs for future generations
It’s clear that the healthcare industry and federal agencies are taking steps to stop overprescribing antibiotics and to send the message that antibiotic awareness “ensures that lifesaving drugs will be available for future generations.”
As a GenXer, I was raised by Baby Boomers as parents in the “antibiotics will fix it” days. Not only did I grow up believing that to be true, but my parents were loyal believers that antibiotics were the answer to everything. In fact, they still are. If my sister and I had a sore throat or the sniffles or anything resembling an upper respiratory infection when we were kids, my mom immediately took us to the doctor for the cure-all: antibiotics.
And until a few years ago, I raised my young boys while holding those same beliefs. We didn’t go to the pediatrician every time they caught a cold or got sick, but when we did go, I expected a prescription for antibiotics that would magically make it all better. During one visit, my pediatrician explained the difference between viral infections and bacterial infections. She admitted sometimes with an upper respiratory infection or cold, it’s hard to tell what’s causing symptoms. To play it safe, based on her physical examination of my son, she preferred not to prescribe antibiotics, as she thought it was more likely viral. Antibiotics wouldn’t help in that case; the virus simply had to run its course.
I was shocked! I had a sick toddler and was trying to wrap my head around the fact that he wouldn’t be feeling better in a couple of days. I was disappointed and confused. She explained that over-prescribing antibiotics was a bad idea that could be problematic for my son in the long run. I didn’t fully understand it at the time, but I do now. As a result, we (myself included) only take antibiotics if they’re absolutely necessary.
So what about future generations like Millennials (people born in the mid-1980s to the mid-1990s) and Centennials (also called Generation Z, consists of people born from the mid-1990s to the early 2000s)? They make up 26% of the U.S. population, which makes them the largest generation, surpassing the Baby Boomers and the Millennials. Based on how careful pediatricians are with prescribing antibiotics, my children (Centennials) are not growing up with expectations that antibiotics are just a routine part of their medical care. My generation is re-learning the pros and cons of antibiotics, so we can make better, more informed decisions for our children, ourselves and our aging parents. Millennials, a generation known for embracing a holistic approach to health, are also knowledgeable about antibiotic resistance.
A multigenerational approach to the future of healthcare may be just what we need to ensure that life saving antibiotics will fully benefit the patients who need them and that the media presses pause before confounding the work of the research community. As we work toward solidifying that approach, you can help spread the word about Antibiotic Awareness Week this November and all year long with these these helpful resources.
What questions do you have about antibiotics and how they should and shouldn’t be used?
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