My antibiotics addiction means trouble for you!

The statement that antibiotics are addictive is of course nonsense, but my experiences with this type of medicine gives me often a different feeling. I will explain why… and get rid of some frustration on the way…

I got my first antibiotics treatment when I was three years old to get rid of a urinary tract infection (UTI). That is now almost 40 years ago. Since then I have had an antibiotics treatment at least once a year to treat chronic or acute infections of the areas connected to my urinary tract system. To give you a bit of a feeling on how much antibiotics I take through the years, I will start with my current treatment and work towards the past. At the moment I am treated for 20 days by taking a pil of 200mg Tarivid (active compound ofloxacin ) twice a day. Before that, in 2014 I got treated with the antibiotics: Tarivid, Ciprofloxacin and Trimetoprim. In 2013 I used Keflex, and so on.

If I had been more scientific about my own medical problems I could have bored you with a list of antibiotic treatments until you would be sick of it. I have only started keeping track of my antibiotics use for myself in 2013, but I should have done that, way, way back.

Some years it was quiet without any real infections, or I denied it since I was too frustrated to deal with it. At those times the urinary tract infections never became really serious, so I ignored the issue as much as possible. But at other times, like now, I have too much irritation to ignore it. At such moment I seek advice at the urologist and I usually end up with a antibiotics prescription. The treatment removes the symptoms for urinary tract infections and everything is calm again, until the next infection…

If this all sounds like a recurring circle, then you can join the club. In the end antibiotics never solve why I have recurring UTI’s. The medicine only removes the symptoms. Furthermore, why would antibiotics cure my problem? Bacteria like colonizing our body, so an antibiotics treatment might remove the bug that is pestering me, but it is only for so long. After the treatment many of the natural microbes living in my urinary tract system might be removed since they are not resistant to antibiotics as well. At that point, it is all about who is still there, and which of those bugs can dominate the biofilms in these “cleaned” areas of my body.  We just have to wait then until a nasty bug comes around the corner and starts another infection. That usually happens when I get a cold, or I get too much stress, or both…

So what has my story to do with you?

I am not the only one who has this “antibiotic addiction”. Both my brother and mother have exactly the same problem. My sister and father are lucky though, they have nothing to worry about when it comes to UTIs. But the “sick” part of our family has had UTIs for most of our life and with that we got lots of antibiotics. We go from one antibiotics treatment to another without the doctors really identifying the problem. The doctors do try, but they usually fail or give up at some point. Me and my family are not unique. In the United States alone 5 out of 6 people get every year an antibiotics prescription.

These “sick” people all have an antibiotics addiction just like me.

I admit this all does not sound very worrisome. Now, I do not think I will stop using antibiotics in the years to come and neither will all the other people with this peculiar addiction. It is our lives, our bodies that we want to protect from nasty infections, and at this point there is no real alternative. (Although a mix of garlic, leak, copper, and some Bullocks gall might work.) So we stay “addicted”.

Our attitude, however, can become a huge problem for you, your family, your friends and everybody you care about. Our attitude increases the possibility for the occurrence of more antibiotic resistant bacteria in our direct surroundings. Which increases the change that you might catch one too, and it will not let go of you until your deep in the ground.

Moreover, I would say our whole global society has an addiction to antibiotics. For instance, our global meat industry is using antibiotics to improve the meat production yield, not to treat bacterial infections of single animals. In the United States 80 % of all antibiotics is used in the meat industry. We use more antibiotics to make meat than to cure people. I guess that says something about the priorities of our cultures.

Most animals are raised under such abnormal conditions that antibiotics is used to extend the life of the animals until they are big enough to be slaughtered. Under such circumstances antibiotic resistant bacteria will proliferate in the animal farms, and might spread to the people working there. That such things are possible was shown by a study in Italy where methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus (MRSA) was found in diary goat products.  Imagine you are a animal farmer…  This shows that it is not a very large step for antimicrobial resistant bacteria to end up on your dinner plate.

In addition to the agricultural world, many medical doctors give out antibiotics to anybody showing signs of an infection, but often also consider other factors as well. Here in Norway my daughter was in the last year diagnosed twice by our medical practitioner with an infection. Both times we got advised to take antibiotics, even when it was pretty clear that the infection was viral. Viruses can not be killed by antibiotics, but even highly trained doctors feel the urge to use antibiotics against them. At that point the antibiotics might do more harm than good. In the long run, each antibiotics treatment affects the natural bacterial communities living in and on you. How that affects your health is not yet understood, but that it has an effect is understood.

I guess doctors want to avoid being sorry for not prescribing antibiotics in the case it is really needed. But often enough it is not the case and antibiotics are used to satisfy the patients or worried parents. They might even have demanded a treatment and the doctor was in no position to say no (as happens in India, as I was told by some of my Indian colleagues).

When I speak for myself, I have to admit that in the last two years, the medical lab has only been able to detect bacterial growth in one of my urine samples. I was diagnosed with a Staphylococcus epidermis infection (which lives normally on my skin). All other times, one of the signs of an infection in my urinary tract system, are the high white blood cell numbers in my urine, which is way beyond normal. Because of the lack of finding bacterial growth in my urine, I have become quite sceptical about the ability of doctors to diagnose my problems with the limited methods that they have. The use of culturing is one of them and I am not sure how accurate that method is.

In my work dealing with environmental microbes, it is well known that many bugs will not be grown easily in the lab. This is mostly the case with environmental microbes, but I can believe this is also still the case for most microbes living in the biofilms in/on our body. In order to culture bacteria, you need to take care when sampling and handling, and with urine samples that is mostly not the case. At least that is my experience. Nonetheless, even without bacterial growth in my urine, the antibiotics relieve me from pain and smelly urine. So does this tell me there was a real bacterial infection that caused me trouble? I am never sure about it…

Our global antibiotics addiction means trouble for you, because, you might get ill at some point and get infected with a certain bacterial species. In the past most bacterial infections could be treated with antibiotics, even Tuberculosis. Since the days of the penicillin discovery, antibiotic resistance is known and increasing (by the way, the history of the discovery of penicillin is quite interesting). But by now your chance of evading antibiotic resistant bacteria is dropping rapidly and you or your beloved ones might get an infection that can not be treated.

Therefore, my antibiotics addiction, is not only my problem. It is a problem for us all, healthy and sick. We should push our politicians, the pharmaceutical industry and scientists to work on solutions to deal with the problem. The scientists know there is a problem, but the politicians are only now slowly starting to wake-up, and they decide where to put governmental research money…

And we, we should work on reducing the usage of antibiotics. Patients can have a very important role in this as well, since we should stop asking for these medicine if it is not needed. But that does require that we, as a society, educate ourselves on why and when we should or should not take antibiotics.

ps. Do not get me started on fungicide resistance… and the excessive usage of fungicides in agriculture… That is even more scary that antibiotic resistance.

About Thomas Haverkamp

A microbial ecologist, an amateur photographer and a proud father a wonderful girl.
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