Killer Superbugs: Why They’re Happening


Every year, antibiotic-resistant bacteria, otherwise known as superbugs, infect at least 2 million Americans and lead to at least 23,000 deaths. Both the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and the World Health Organization (WHO) fear that the situation is only going to worsen on a global scale.

Why is this happening? There are many reasons, and those reasons differ between developed countries (like the U.S.) and developing ones (like India). We all have the same problem, just in different forms.

In the U.S., the main reasons are overuse and inappropriate use of antibiotics, advances in medicine that allow us to care for sicker patients with weakened immune systems, not fully completing a prescribed course of antibiotics, widespread use of antibiotics in our livestock and a lack of research by pharmaceutical companies to develop newer ones.

In developing countries, the reasons are a little different. They, too, have overuse of antibiotics, but it is especially rampant because in many countries, antibiotics are available without a prescription. In addition, very poor public sanitation means people are more likely to get infections (and therefore need more antibiotics). Of course, some reasons are the same. Just as in the U.S., some patients who need antibiotics stop taking them before they’ve have finished their course — but the repercussions can be even greater. In India, for instance, some deadly strains of tuberculosis have become resistant to all known antibiotics.

Stopping Medication Too Soon: What’s the Big Deal?

People sometimes wonder why it’s such a problem not to finish their antibiotic prescription once they start to feel better. Here’s why:

Everything in life can evolve. Part of the defense of bacteria is to be able to evolve and build a resistance to antibiotics. Think of it like weight lifting. If I just gave you 2,000 pounds to lift suddenly, it would crush you. Similarly, we want to give enough antibiotics to kill the bacteria. We call this a therapeutic dose. But if I gave you 50 pounds every day, you could slowly build up strength to that weight and instead of the weight being enough to kill you, it would only make you stronger. This is what happens when you don’t complete the dosage. It creates what’s called a sub-therapeutic dose. Just like weight lifting, it causes the bacteria to actually become stronger and build a resistance to that antibiotic.

So the next time you need an antibiotic (and only take one when you really need it), finish all the medication to be sure the bacteria are killed off. Otherwise, some of the bacteria remains in your body and can make you sick again.