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Antibiotic Resistance

Doctors use antibiotics to prevent and treat bacterial infections. These drugs have saved many lives for decades.

But sometimes bacteria mutate and the antibiotics that used to kill them don't work as well — or at all. When they no longer work well, bacterial infections can become more dangerous and spread.

The World Health Organization says antibiotic resistance is one of the biggest threats to global health today.

Call the UPMC Center for Care of Infectious Diseases to learn more or make an appointment at 412-647-7228 or 1-877-788-7228.

What Is Antibiotic Resistance?

Antibiotic resistance means that drugs made to kill bacteria or slow their growth no longer work as they should.

Without effective antibiotics, it becomes harder to treat infections like:

  • Pneumonia.
  • Tuberculosis.
  • Salmonella.
  • Gonorrhea.

Even simple skin infections can be a problem when bacteria that cause them resist antibiotics.

How common is antibiotic resistance?

The CDC reports that more than 2.8 million antibiotic-resistant infections occur in the U.S. each year and cause over 35,000.

Antibiotic resistance can affect anyone, regardless of age, sex, socioeconomic status, or health problems.

What causes antibiotic resistance?

Note that your body doesn't become resistant to antibiotics — the bacteria do.

These antibiotic-resistant bacteria can travel from person to person. They can even be on surfaces (like a shopping cart handle) or in food that isn't properly prepared.

Reasons for antibiotic resistance include:

  • Taking antibiotics when they can't help. In the past, doctors sometimes prescribed antibiotics when people didn't need them. Antibiotics don't work on viruses that cause most colds, flu, and COVID-19. They also don't work on fungal infections that can cause athlete's foot or yeast infections.
  • Using antibiotics incorrectly. Never skip a few days of your antibiotic prescription or quit taking it too early — even if you're feeling better. The antibiotics may not have killed all the bacteria in your body yet. The bacteria that remain — which may be less responsive to antibiotics — can then reproduce and spread the infection.
  • Using antibiotics in farming. Adding antibiotics to animal feed can boost drug resistance. The bacteria that are in an animal's gut can become resistant to antibiotics and contaminate meat. Antibiotic-resistant bacteria can also get into the soil through animal waste, tainting fruits and vegetables.
  • World travel. Modern travel means antibiotic-resistant bacteria can move around the world.

Antibiotic resistance risk factors and complications

Antibiotic-resistant bacteria can spread to other people just like any other bacteria. That's why antibiotic resistance is common in health care settings.

Older people are at greater risk.

Other risk factors for antibiotic resistance include:

  • Having AIDS.
  • Immune suppressing therapy (such as for lupus or another autoimmune disease).
  • Having cancer or going through chemo.
  • Having an organ transplant.

If commonly prescribed antibiotics no longer work, doctors can test the bacteria to see which antibiotics (if any) still work against it.

Complications from antibiotic resistance include:

  • Longer hospital stays.
  • Side effects from harsher medicine.
  • More health care costs.
  • Added follow-up doctor's visits and treatments.
  • Greater risk of extended illness or death.
  • Lack of treatment options.

How to prevent antibiotic resistance

To help prevent antibiotic resistance:

  • Follow your doctor's instructions exactly when taking prescription antibiotics.
  • Complete your entire course of antibiotics, even if you feel better.
  • Do not share your medications with other people.
  • Never take someone else's medicine.
  • Do not pressure your doctor into giving you an antibiotic.

To help prevent a bacterial infection from happening in the first place:

  • Maintain a healthy lifestyle (diet, exercise, enough sleep) to lower your chance of getting sick.
  • Practice good handwashing techniques.
  • Do not share food or drink with anyone.
  • Wash fruits and vegetables before eating.
  • Do not eat raw meat, seafood, or eggs.
  • Practice safe sex.
  • Keep wounds clean and covered.
  • Do not share personal items (towels, razors, brushes) with anyone.
  • Cough or sneeze into your elbow.

Antibiotic Resistance Symptoms and Diagnosis

A bacterial infection can affect almost any system of the body and cause symptoms such as:

  • Fever.
  • Chills.
  • Night sweats.
  • Pain.
  • Fatigue.
  • Headache.
  • Skin flushing or soreness.
  • Nausea.
  • Vomiting.
  • Diarrhea.
  • Belly pain.

Your symptoms will be the same whether the bacteria that caused the infection is resistant to antibiotics or not.

If you do not feel better after taking your prescribed course, you may have an antibiotic-resistant infection. You should call your doctor if that is the case.

Diagnosing antibiotic resistance

Your doctor may diagnose antibiotic resistance with:

  • A physical exam.
  • Blood tests.
  • Urine tests.
  • Tissue or bone samples from the infected area.

Your doctor will send samples to a lab.

Lab workers will expose the bacteria in the sample to various antibiotics. If the bacteria keep growing despite exposure, it means they're resistant to that antibiotic.

Antibiotic Resistance Treatment at UPMC

UPMC is at the forefront of antibiotic resistance research. But antibiotic-resistant infections can be tough — and sometimes impossible — to treat.

If your infection isn't responding to antibiotics, your doctor may prescribe a different, stronger one. But sometimes there isn't another option.

That's why preventing antibiotic resistance is so vital.

Contact the UPMC Center for Care of Infectious Diseases

To learn more about the UPMC Center for Care of Infectious Diseases or to make an appointment, call 412-647-7228 or 1-877-788-7228.