Antibiotics are used to treat bacterial infections such as sore throat, urinary tract infections, or certain types of pneumonia but they don’t work on viruses like flu. In 1928, Alexander Fleming discovered penicillin that led to the introduction of antibiotics which reduced the number of deaths caused by infections to a great number. They work by killing bacteria or stop them from reproducing and spreading. If you have a sore throat that is due to a cold caused by bacteria then taking antibiotics is not effective.
New research has proven that taking a course of antibiotics can weaken your immune system. This is because they cannot differentiate between ‘good’ and ‘bad’ bacteria and kill both indiscriminately. Let’s know more about this.
Adverse effects of antibiotics on the immune system
The immune system is your main line of defense against germs and harmful substances that could make you ill. It comprises various organs, cells, and proteins. This process of fighting the infections occurs at a cellular level. White blood cells (leukocytes) fight infections, B cells make antibodies to fight bacteria and T cells destroy the infected cells.
Sometimes, the immune system is not capable of fighting off the infection alone and that’s the time when you need to go for antibiotics. In most cases, they are incredibly effective against this fight. In the early 19’s infectious diseases were the major cause of deaths but now it’s not the case due to the availability of antibiotics.
But despite all, antibiotics do have a downside. They can destroy the healthy bacteria in your gut which may affect the digestive system, metabolism, and parts of the immune system in the digestive tract. A lab study on mice found that antibiotics can harm the bacteria that fight against fungal infections on behalf of the immune system. While another mice study showed that they lessened the ability of immune cells to destroy bacteria, rather they changed the cells in a way that protected the pathogens (infectious organisms) instead of killing them.
In humans, they change the bacteria living within the digestive tract that can make you more vulnerable to infections and those changes may, unfortunately, be permanent. “Your normal flora may never actually return completely to normal,” Berezow says, a Ph.D. microbiologist at the American Council on Science and Health.
Antibiotics are often unnecessary
If you don’t need an antibiotic to treat your infection then its use can potentially harm you. Its side effects may include nausea, diarrhea, vomiting, and yeast infections. And its unnecessary use increases antibiotic resistance which makes it harder to treat bacteria as bacteria can now overcome the antibiotic’s effect by neutralizing it or protecting itself.
The unnecessary prescription of antibiotics is common. According to an estimate, doctors give around 47 million unnecessary antibiotic prescriptions each year. If you are sick due to a cold or a viral infection then the use of antibiotics will not help you from getting ill. Rather their unnecessary use may lead to longer hospitalizations and frequent visits to your doctor.
When to take antibiotics?
It may be tricky to know the time when you need to have antibiotics because many symptoms of viral and bacterial infections overlap. Like both, the symptoms of a cold (a viral infection) and strep throat (a bacterial infection) may result in a sore throat. For serious symptoms like high fever see your doctor and take the full course of antibiotics if he prescribes them. But don’t insist on your doctor to give you antibiotics if he doesn’t. Use them only when they are known to be useful like in bacterial infections.
Antibiotics and children
With the advancements in the medical field, now you can find several over the counter antibiotics for babies and even infants. But they do come with a downside and may be more harmful than in adults. Because the early years are more crucial as the life-lasting immune system of a baby is in the development process. And the unnecessary or overuse of antibiotics at this stage may have long-lasting or permanent impacts on the immune system. Their side effects may include diarrhea, stomach ache, nausea, rashes, and allergic reactions.
Antibiotic exposure in the early years may lead to an increased risk of obesity, infections, and asthma in later life. As like you, your baby’s body is full of bacteria and as part of the microbiome, they are very important and play a role in digestion, growth, and the immune system. By taking antibiotics we unwantedly kill some of those bacteria. Although the body can replace them the ones that a baby gathers and grows early in his life are very important and have lifelong effects.
In short, antibiotics can be life-saving when you really need them for both you and your baby. But their unnecessary and overuse should be avoided. They should be given only when prescribed and for babies ask your doctor for the shortest course possible. Try to rely on your immune system and make it stronger to fight off the infections.