The development of penicillin was rightly seen as a great breakthrough in medicine. Fatal infections could now be treated with a “silver bullet.” However in nature nothing is static. Bacteria have been around for longer than humans and have survived by being able to adapt.
In the 1970’s a term, antibiotic induced diarrhoea was coined – describing a form of diarrhoea that followed a course of antibiotics. This was caused by a bug, resistant to antibiotics called Clostridium Difficile, (as it was difficult to treat.)
This issue has been put back in the spotlight with the holding of an Antimicrobial Resistance Summit in Sydney. The aim of this was to look at ways of reducing resistance to antibiotics. The summit would look at, amongst other things infection control issues, and the use of antibiotics in agriculture.
The problem has become worse in most countries. It is estimated that there are over 350,000 cases and up to 20,000 deaths from Clostridium Difficile infection each year in the USA. The rate of infection doubled between 2001 and 2005. Almost all of these will be after a course of antibiotics for another reason or were contracted in hospital. In fact the chance of getting this particular infection outside a health care setting is low.
Herein lies the issue with our silver bullet and bacteria, which are smaller than us but not as stupid as we thought. We have overused antibiotics particularly in illnesses like colds flu’s, sinus and upper respiratory infections. Viruses, which don’t respond to an antibiotic anyway, cause the vast majority of these and a reasonable number of others would be adequately dealt with by our immune systems if we gave them the right support and a bit of time.
Many people believe an antibiotic will reduce time spent off work. This is rarely the case. Some feel better after the first tablet which is nice but has nothing to do with the antibiotic. Some feel that last time they were sick an antibiotic worked so they must need it again. The chances are that they got better anyway rather than due to the tablets.
The medical profession and the public, both have a role here. Doctor’s have been too willing to prescribe antibiotics including on the “just in case” basis. However people “demanding” antibiotics even when the doctor feels it isn’t needed exacerbate this. Parents in particular often feel that a child with a cough or snuffle needs antibiotics. Please note – your children don’t need an antibiotic any more than you if they have a cold.
The other big issue is the use of antibiotics in food production. This is often a consequence of farming practices leading to infections, which are then treated, with antibiotics. Grass fed cattle are far less likely to get infections than corn fed cattle. The same applies to squashing cattle together in pens rather than having them graze in paddocks.
We need to keep antibiotics in reserve for when they are really needed. In turn we need to look after our immune systems.
So what can you do to strengthen your immune system? Eat a balanced diet with adequate fruit, vegetables and essential fatty acids such as fish, olives (or olive oil), linseed or nuts. Many benefit from vitamin supplements, particularly antioxidants such as vitamins A, C and E, which help the immune system. Zinc, Vitamin D and Folate supplements may also have a role. Drink 30ml/kg of (preferably) filtered water each day.
Make sure you get enough sleep as this is the bodies, recharge the battery time. When ill, people will rest and reduce their load – just what the body needs.
Most importantly examine your workload and stress levels and take steps to reduce them before they reduce your immunity to illness.