Antibiotics: When Do You Actually Need Them?



Before the discovery of antibiotics, people commonly died from bacterial infections caused by anything from strep throat to a paper cut. Then, in 1928, a miracle drug was discovered: penicillin, which was eventually developed into an effective remedy for bacterial infections. The drug is credited with saving tens of thousands of lives and influencing the course of modern history. Human life expectancy jumped by eight years in this Golden Age of Antibiotics. However, disease-causing microbes are not going down without a fight. Some bacteria have been able to resist antibiotic drugs, leading to “one of the world’s most pressing public health problems,” according to the Centers for Disease Control (CDC). In fact, each year, almost 2 million people in the U.S. become infected with resistant bacteria, and at least 23,000 people die from these infections.


  • At least 30% of antibiotic courses prescribed are unnecessary, which has contributed to the emergence of resistant bacteria.
  • More than ten billion dollars were spent on antibiotics in the United States in 2009.
  • Antibiotics only work on infections caused by bacteria and have no effect on viruses, which are the cause of colds and flu.
  • For decades, doctors routinely prescribed these drugs for viral infections, which promoted the increase of bacterial resistance.
  • You should always complete a dose, and exactly as prescribed.
  • You should never share antibiotics.


Taking steps to prevent antibiotic resistance is not just about one individual but about society at large. Scientists have been seeing cases of antibiotic-resistant tuberculosis, gonorrhea, staph, strep, salmonella and other bugs; including one particularly dangerous and increasingly common bacterial infection, C. diff, that causes life-threatening diarrhea. The CDC estimates that C. diff. causes 250,000 illnesses per year and 14,000 deaths.

Maybe scientists and doctors will be able to keep ahead of the resistant strains of bacteria. However, according to the World Health Organization, “It’s not clear if the new drugs under development will be able to keep up with rapidly evolving antibacterial resistance caused by overuse. Bacteria are fast learners, and we’re giving them lots of practice.”

Humans, with intelligence and technology on our side, should be able to win this war against the mindless, single-celled bacteria. However, we have to fight together. One thing each of us can do is use these life-saving drugs wisely—exactly as prescribed. Let’s do our part to make sure they continue to work not only now, but also in the future. Your children and your children’s children will thank you.