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Antibiotic resistance: Causes and consequences

20 March, 2020

What are antibiotics?

Antibiotics are a type of medication used to prevent and treat bacterial infections. They kill bacteria and slow down their growth. This gives the body’s immune system a chance to fight off the infection. Different antibiotics are prescribed for different bacterial infections. Since the 1940s, antibiotics have been responsible for saving millions of lives. It all began with Alexander Fleming’s chance discovery of Penicillin back in 1928 in his London laboratory. He found that Penicillin had an antibacterial effect on the bacteria staphylococci, but it took another 10 years before it was ready for clinical use.

Antibiotics come in many forms such as tablets, capsules, liquids, creams and ointments. They usually begin to work as soon as you take them, however you might not start to feel better for two to three days. It’s important that you always finish your course of antibiotics, even if you start to feel better.

Understanding Antibiotic resistance

Antibiotic resistance happens when these bacteria survive antibiotic treatment and continue to cause infection. This is a problem because it means that infections caused by those bacteria take longer to heal, are more severe, and are more likely to spread to other people. The World Health Organisation states that antibiotic resistance is one of the biggest threats to global health, food security and development today. For example, infections such as pneumonia and tuberculosis are becoming harder to treat. Not only are the infections taking longer to heal, but antibiotic resistance also leads to longer hospital stays and higher medical costs.

 What causes antibiotic resistance?

Bacteria evolves naturally and develops a resistance to antibiotics over time. Bacteria can change their genes after coming into contact with an antibiotic and when they multiply, they can make more resistant bacteria. Yet our actions have led to an increase in how quickly the bacteria are developing resistance.

These actions include:

  • when health professionals over prescribe antibiotics
  • when people don’t take antibiotics are directed
  • when people practice poor hygiene leading to an increase in infections
  • increase in worldwide travel, spreading resistant bacteria.

Multi-Resistant Organisms (MROs)

There are some bacteria that have become resistant to multiple antibiotics. These are known as Multi-Resistant Organisms (MROs) or “Superbugs” and are causing serious problems at hospitals. Some common superbugs include methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus (MRSA) and some multi-resistant strains of Escherichia coli (E. coli).

Staphylococcus aureus (S.aureus) is commonly called “golden staph” is a bacteria often found in community and healthcare settings. Infection with S.aureus may result in a range of conditions from mild skin infections (such as boils) through to systemic illnesses (such a blood stream infection).

Methicillin-Resistant Staphylococcus aureus (MRSA) is resistant to methicillin and presents the same risks of infection as non-resistant strains. MRSA is often found in hospitals and can cause significant infections in hospital patients who can be more vulnerable due to lower immunity.  

Escherichia coli (E.coli), one of the leading causes of bloodstream infections, with some strains being resistant to multiple antibiotics. A 2018 report by the Australian Commission on Safety and Quality in Health Care shows that E.coli is responsible for 36.8% of bloodstream infections. Yet 12.7% of E.coli samples are becoming resistant to the antibiotics ceftriaxone and ciprofloxacin.

What you can do

There are some steps you can take to decrease antibiotic resistance:

  • regularly wash your hands to prevent infections
  • wash fruit and vegetables thoroughly to prevent food-borne infections
  • don’t pressure your health professional for antibiotics if they say you don’t need them
  • ·only take antibiotics when they’re prescribed for you and follow your health professional’s instructions particularly around ensuring you take the complete course of prescribed antibiotics.

It’s important to remember that antibiotics don’t work against viruses that cause colds or the flu, they only work against infections caused by bacteria.


All information contained in this article is intended for general information purposes only. The information provided should not be relied upon as medical advice and does not supersede or replace a consultation with a suitably qualified healthcare professional.

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