The Pros and Cons of Antibiotics

Antibiotics are an incredibly valuable tool when facing serious bacterial infections, but the trend has been to over prescribe antibiotics, and that trend is leading to very serious consequences. More and more bacteria are becoming resistant to antibiotic therapy. Science has known about this problem of growing resistance for some time, but the medical community has in large part ignored the warnings. One of the biggest mistakes being made is the routine use of antibiotics for upper respiratory infections such as colds and flu.  Most of these infections are viral, and antibiotics have no effect on them. What treating a virus with antibiotics does do is create resistance among the bacteria that naturally inhabit the body.  This means that every time we use antibiotics unnecessarily, we increase the risk of future encounters with resistant bacteria. The CDC estimates that of the 235 million doses of antibiotics given each year, up to 50% are unnecessary.

In children, antibiotics are prescribed most often for ear infections.  In 1980 doctors wrote more than 4.2 million prescriptions for amoxicillin, considered the first line of treatment for ear infections.  By 1992 that number had jumped to 12.3 million, and estimates for last year are as high as 30 million prescriptions. This is happening even as more information is coming out questioning the effectiveness of antibiotics for this condition. An analysis conducted by the RAND corporation found that almost two-thirds of children diagnosed with uncomplicated acute otitis media recover from pain and fever within twenty-four hours without treatment with antibiotics, and over 80% recover completely within seven days. (With the use of antibiotics this number increases to 93% recovery within the first week.) Similar results were found in a study conducted in the United Kingdom. There are also indications that antibiotic use actually increases the incidence of recurrent ear infections. In the Netherlands the common practice of ‘watchful waiting’ has lead to use of antibiotics for ear infections only 3% of the time compared with 83% in the U.S.

Parents need to be informed about the pros and cons of antibiotic use. A survey of 600 pediatricians found that M.D.s often prescribe antibiotics at the request of the parent when they might otherwise choose to wait.  Most parents only want to help their children feel better, and it can be hard to accept that the best thing to do is to wait, but doctors must realize that if they prescribe antibiotics once, there will be increased pressure for repeated use.

From a Chinese Medicine point of view this pattern of repetitive antibiotic use creates not only the problem of resistance, but the cold properties of antibiotics can weaken the digestive system, leading to decreased vitality and a weakened immune system, which can further perpetuate the cycle of illness.

This is especially true of children, whose immature digestion is much more susceptible to damage from cold.

Chinese medicine can come into play in two ways. First, Chinese herbs and other modalities can be used to ease the symptoms of cold or flu, and to ease the pain and inflammation from ear infections. But even more importantly, Chinese medicine can strengthen the immune system and help break the pattern of recurrent infections. It would be foolish to discount the value of antibiotics for the treatment

of potentially dangerous bacterial infections, but we must be more selective about their use. There are scientists who already talk about the ‘Post Antibiotic Age’ when bacterial resistance to antibiotics will make their use obsolete. Most of us grew up at a time when antibiotics where considered a panacea, but as parents of the next generation, it is our responsibility not to let their value be wasted.