The discovery of antibiotics revolutionized the medical treatment of bacterial infections and considerably increased life expectancy of the population. But despite how useful they are, we must still be very careful not to abuse these medications so as not to throw off the balance of the bacteria living inside of us already.
An ancient defence
Contrary to popular belief, it wasn't humans that invented antibiotics. In reality, these substances are an ancient method of defense, developed millions of years ago by several types of microorganisms to protect themselves against damage by certain bacteria.
The effectiveness of antibiotics, however, has made it so that these medications have been overused over the decades. For example, it is estimated that a person born in an industrialized country undergoes between 10 to 20 antibiotic treatments before reaching adulthood. Unfortunately, some of these treatments are useless, because the infections they are supposed to treat are caused by viruses, which are not susceptible to antibiotics.
A major problem associated with antibiotic abuse is the risk of the bacteria developing resistance. Even if most bacteria are eliminated, some will survive and acquire the ability to resist antibiotics and can even transmit this resistant gene to other species. This resistance is a fundamental characteristic of the bacteria world: we recently showed that bacteria that were alive 30,000 years ago had already developed a resistance to vancomycin, an antibiotic that wasn't used clinically until 1958.
Another problem is that antibiotics don't make the distinction between good and bad bacteria and, consequently, an overuse of these medications can kill off many bacteria that are essential to maintaining good health, particularly the cells that live in our digestive system.
It is therefore troubling to see that the increase in incidence of many health problems has coincided with massive antibiotic use. Because the intestinal bacteria are essential to the proper functioning of our immune system, certain specialists have proposed that losing these bacteria due to overuse of antibiotics could be involved in the troubling increase in cases of immunity-related illnesses, notably inflammatory intestinal diseases, type 1 diabetes, allergies and asthma.
A recent study also showed that the risk of inflammatory disease affected the intestine is multiplied by five to seven times amongst children who have undergone seven or more antibiotic treatment.
The possibility of long-term side effects associated with antibiotic overuse should push us to use caution and only use medications when they are really needed, all while following to the letter the usage instructions that come with a medication.
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