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Health Fact Sheets

Antibiotic Resistance (revised August 2010)

For more information on antibiotic use visit the Tennessee's Appropriate Antibiotic Use Campaign's website.

What is antibiotic resistance?

Antibiotic resistance is the ability of some disease-causing microorganisms to avoid the killing action of drugs that once destroyed or controlled them.  Improper use and overuse of antibiotics has led to the evolution of stronger and tougher strains of bacteria that are no longer sensitive to standard drug treatments--a sort of "superbacteria" explosion.  The result is infectious diseases that are nearly impossible to treat with common antibiotics.

How does antibiotic resistance develop?

An antibiotic can eliminate the symptoms of an infection without killing all the microorganisms at the site of infection. Genetic changes occurring by chance enable some microorganisms to resist the antibiotic's assault. The survivors become the source of a new, drug-resistant strain that can often transfer the resistance to their own kind as well as to other microorganisms. Transfer of information among microorganisms is common-place.

Every year, more microorganisms are able to resist the killing power of penicillin, tetracycline, and other so-called "wonder drugs." As hard-to-cure infections become more widespread, treatment will become more difficult and expensive. The chances of minor problems evolving into medical disasters will increase, too, as more drugs become ineffective.

Why is antibiotic resistance a growing problem?

  • The overuse and misuse of antibiotics are fueling the proliferation of resistant microorganisms. Some doctors prescribe them when they might not be needed. Patients add to the problem by demanding antibiotics for every infection, needed or not. Each unnecessary use of an antibiotic for a viral infection, like a cold or the flu, increases the chance that resistant strains might develop among the body's naturally occurring bacteria.  Even when antibiotics are prescribed appropriately, many patients fail to use them as directed. Some stop taking their medicine after just a few days; some stockpile unused drugs to take later or to give to others. Stopping antibiotics too early kills the weak microorganisms, leaving the strong to develop resistance, flourish, and perhaps spread through the community.
  • Because many pharmaceutical companies have reduced or stopped their antibiotic research, doctors cannot count on new drugs to treat resistant infections. Few new antibiotics are on the horizon, and those that are available may not be the best for the job because they attack many kinds of microorganisms at once, often unnecessarily.
  • The illnesses for which antibiotics are prescribed--such as childhood ear infections and sinus infections--are on the rise. The increase in day-care attendance has provided opportunities for more infections, increased antibiotic use, and the resulting increased spread of drug resistance.
  • Increased global travel is transferring drug resistant organisms between countries at jet speed.
  • Hospitals are emerging as significant sites for development of drug resistance. New technologies and increased use of invasive devices in patients are providing easier access routes for drug-resistant microorganisms into the body. Hospital patients typically receive several courses of antibiotics, creating ideal conditions for resistant strains to emerge and thrive. Increasing numbers of hospitalized patients have weakened immune systems, making them vulnerable to infections with antibiotic-resistant disease agents.

How can I reduce my risk from drug-resistant infectious diseases?

So far, most bacterial infections can still be controlled by antibiotics. Following these suggestions can help increase the chance that they stay susceptible to our current arsenal of drugs:

  • Do not expect or demand antibiotics when you are told by a doctor that you have a viral infection. Antibiotics have no effect on viral infections like colds, influenza, and viral bronchitis. Understand that antibiotics must be prescribed appropriately.
  • When antibiotics are needed, take them exactly as prescribed for as long as the directions specify. Do not stop taking antibiotics when you start to feel better. Finish the prescription as instructed by your doctor.
  • Ask the doctor to give you the most specific antibiotic possible, rather than a broad-spectrum drug. This might mean waiting a day or so for the results of a culture test, to find out what kind of infection you have.
  • If your symptoms do not improve soon after taking antibiotics, see your doctor. This could be a sign that the medication is not working.
  • Take only antibiotics prescribed for your own current illness. Do not save antibiotics for later use with other illnesses. Do not share antibiotics with others.
  • Reduce the need for antibiotics by decreasing the spread of infections. Stay up to date on all needed immunizations. Make it a habit to wash hands often with soap and warm water.