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The Surprising Risks of Antibiotics

Clostridium difficile

The next time you find yourself asking for an antibiotic to treat a nasty cough or sinus infection - or accepting one when your doctor offers it - consider this: Doctors are overprescribing antibiotics and putting patients at risk, sometimes giving patients three times as many antibiotics as are warranted, according to a new report from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta. This practice can cause harmful side effects and lead to infections that kill thousands of Americans each year.

"We have to protect patients by protecting antibiotics,"  CDC Director Tom Frieden told the Wall Street Journal. "The drugs we have today are endangered and any new drugs could be lost just as quickly."

When infections become resistant to antibiotics, doctors can run out of medications to treat them. Overuse of powerful antibiotics such as vancomycin is especially dangerous because it can lead to Clostridium difficile, diarrheal infections that are notoriously difficult to treat in older people and cause an estimated 14,000 American deaths each year. (Doctors are even resorting to " poop pills" containing healthy fecal bacteria to halt the infections.) The CDC report estimates that a 30 percent reduction in the use of antibiotics that cause C. difficile would reduce those infections by 26 percent. Overall, the CDC estimates that drug-resistant infections kill an estimated 23,000 each year in the United States.

"If you are on the vulnerable or frail side and you've had some surgery or an illness and you run into C. difficile, you are in trouble," says John Santa, M.D., medical director with Consumer Reports.

In addition, he says, adverse effects from antibiotics are among the most common reasons for emergency room visits, resulting in some 142,000 trips to American ERs each year.

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Even though the CDC is working to encourage doctors to prescribe fewer antibiotics, it can be hard not to ask for them when you think they might help - and even harder to turn them down when they're offered. People go to the doctor expecting to get treated, says Santa, and they often don't want to go home without a prescription. To help, Consumer Reports, using information made available through the Choosing Wisely campaign, has put together a primer to help patients work with their doctor to avoid overuse of antibiotics that can lead to serious complications and death. AARP is a consumer partner with Choosing Wisely.

Here's what you can do to protect yourself and your family:

- At home: Avoid antibiotic cleaning products. Wash your hands with regular soap and water. Use soap and water for wounds as well, and don't use antibiotic products such as neomycin (Neosporin) unless the cut looks dirty.

- In the gym: Wipe exercise equipment with alcohol-based sprays or wipes. Many gyms provide these. If yours doesn't, ask for them.

- In the hospital: Make sure doctors, nurses and visitors wash their hands or use an alcohol-based hand sanitizer. Ask every day if catheters and other tubes can be removed. Make cleanliness in your room a priority. See this hospital  patient checklist for more safety tips.

- At the doctor's office: Don't ask for or accept antibiotics for colds, coughs, flu, sinus infections or ear infections when they're unnecessary. If your doctor recommends antibiotics, ask: How likely am I to be helped by this antibiotic versus how likely am I to get a rash or diarrhea?

- When taking antibiotics: Take the medication exactly as the doctor prescribes and don't skip doses. Take all the pills prescribed to you, even after you start feeling better. Don't save antibiotics and don't share them.

For more advice on antibiotics and how to avoid infections, see these tips from the CDC and Consumer Reports.

Photo source:   CDC


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