In 1928 Scottish biologist Alexander Fleming discovered the antibiotic properties of penicillin, learning that penicillin could actually destroy bacteria. Since then a variety of antibiotics have been developed and are used daily in modern American life. Antibiotics save lives every day and are perhaps the single most important health discovery of human history. However, the over-use and misuse of antibiotics now poses a danger to human health, as dangerous bacteria start to become resistant to our antibiotics. Overuse of antibiotics is a growing concern in the healthcare industry; one of the most recent concerns is the use of triclosan in cosmetics and personal care products.
Understanding Antibiotic Resistance Antibiotics have been a literal lifesaver for more than 80 years of human history. However, their ability to fight bacterial infection and save lives is now in jeopardy due to people’s over-use and misuse of these important medicines. While the original antibiotic was penicillin, today dozens – perhaps hundreds – of antibiotics are available in modern medicine.
Why so many different kinds? Because human ingenuity recognized that different types of antibiotics could be used to better fight different bacterial infections. But what we also learned was that these antibiotics have a dark side – when used improperly they can actually lead to antibiotic resistance. In short, misuse of antibiotics creates super bacteria which are immune to modern antibiotics. We then need to create new antibiotics to deal with these new super bacteria.
Accidentally Building Superbugs Let’s consider how antibiotics work, simply. When a bacterium invades the body an antibiotic can be ingested to fight that infection. The antibiotic works to weaken the bacteria, eventually weakening it to the point of the bacteria’s death. However, as the saying goes, that which does not kill us makes us stronger – this is true of bacteria, unfortunately.
When bacteria get hit with antibiotics they start to weaken. Often, they weaken to the point where the sick person feels better. If the person continues to take the antibiotic then all of the bacteria will eventually die and the person will be cured. One problem comes when people stop taking antibiotics too soon. This weakens the antibiotics, yes. But, if the antibiotics are discontinued before the bacteria all die, the weak bacteria can regain their strength; often, they come back stronger than they were before, and worse, they have now developed an immunity to the antibiotic that originally weakened them. Now, stronger antibiotics will be needed to kill these bacteria. What’s worse is that these new, stronger bacteria can now be spread to others, so a newly infected person is infected with this stronger, harder to kill bacteria.
The cycle can continue, with the bacteria developing more and more immunity to various antibiotics. Eventually, strands can develop (and have) that are immune to almost every antibiotic that man makes. In fact, bacteria are managing to mutate much faster than science can develop or find new antibiotics.
The Potential Problems with Triclosan The same can happen with topical antibiotics as it does with internally ingested antibiotics. This means that antibiotics used in lotions, soaps and cosmetics can actually make humans more sick rather than less. One of the antibiotics commonly used in cosmetics and toothpaste is triclosan. This antibiotic is added to cosmetics with the idea that it will give them a longer shelf life and prevent bacteria from growing within them. However, no study has actually proved this benefit. And in fact, studies have suggested that all the addition of triclosan to cosmetics does is help to create bacterial superbugs. In fact, both Canada and the United States are currently looking more deeply into the use of triclosan in over the counter products and we may see new regulations in the future. We certainly should.
Making Changes in Attitudes and Actions So, what can you do? Well, basically we need people to develop a new attitude towards antibiotics. We need to recognize that over using and misusing antibiotics is dangerous, and simply leads to the creation of these superbugs, putting us all in danger later.
We should only take antibiotics when prescribed by a doctor. Everyone should avoid cosmetics, lotions and other over the counter products that contain antibiotics. Additionally, when antibiotics are prescribed by a doctor it is imperative that the patient follow the directions carefully, taking the full prescribed round of antibiotics, even if the symptoms of disease appear to subside before the antibiotic treatment is complete.