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Anthrax Scare May Lead to Antibiotic Misuse and More Problems

Antibiotics have been flying off pharmacy shelves because of the anthrax scares. But improper use of these potent drugs can pose serious health risks.

CBS health contributor Dr. Jordan Metzl joined the Saturday Early Show to give some advice on when and when not to use antibiotics,

Many people have been stockpiling Cipro, but you say that you need to speak with your physician before using it.

Yes, people are obviously scared about anthrax. There are many reports of people going online and buying Cipro and other antibiotics. This is not good because people can't be sure what they are getting, especially if the pharmacy is located overseas. Also, many people have been scared that drug stores would run out of Cipro so they've asked their doctors for prescriptions. However, this does not mean they should just begin taking the drug. Wait to get the okay from your physician. Cipro is a very powerful antibiotic that belongs to a class of drugs known as fluoroquinolones. If they stop working, many infections could become resistant.

Let's go through some of the problems that can arise from overuse.

For years, we've been hearing that antibiotics are rapidly losing their ability to fight infectious diseases. Penicillin when it first came out in the 1940s was considered by many to be a miracle drug. Now it is no longer effective against diseases such as gonorrhea and is sometimes not even effective for treating a child's ear infection.

What's to blame for this trend?

It's twofold: Many doctors are overprescribing antibiotics. The agricultural industry is also to blame. Several studies in last week's New England Journal of Medicine found antibiotics continue to be used to enhance the size of farm animals. This encourages the growth of drug-resistant bacteria, which researchers say are now common in many consumers' intestines.

What's bacteria overgrowth?

The intestines have many millions of bacteria that are helpful for digestion and live in a delicate balance. What can happen when you take antibiotics is that one group of bacteria, the lactobaccilli that we get in yogurt and cheese, are suppressed, while a group called Clostridium difficile, which is resistant to many drugs, will proliferate. This leads to an overgrowth of the Clostridium difficile, which can be very difficult to treat. In some severe cases, the entire colon needs to be removed due to this bacteria.

What about bone growth problems?

This is a problem especially in children. We don't recommend Cipro and other powerful antibiotics because of growth plate problems, which has been documented in animal studies.

Let's go through some instances where you say that antibiotics are appropriate.

These all fall under the category of bacterial infections that respond to the various antibiotics. The trick here though is to make sure your doctor precribes the right antibiotic, one that is not too strong:

  • Strep throat.
  • Urinary tract infections.
  • Prolonged sinus infection.

Now let's go through times when you say we don't need antibiotics.

These are the most common infections, and they are all caused by viruses. Antibiotics have absolutely no effect on them. And if you take them in these cases you could develop the drug resistance that we have been talking about:

  • Common cold.
  • Viral infections.
  • Flu.

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