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Misuse of antibiotics

Inappropriate use of antibiotics frequently leads to the development of resistant strains of the bacteria that cause infection

2008 Available in English, French, Portuguese and Spanish

Photo: Marcus Perkins

From: Household healthcare – Footsteps 74

The importance of health care at the household level

Misuse of antibiotics is a problem in countries across the world, but particularly in the South, where people often use them to treat any minor infection, with or without a doctor’s prescription. Inappropriate use of antibiotics frequently leads to the development of resistant strains of the bacteria that cause infection. This means that in future these antibiotics will not be effective in treating infections. Excessive use of antibiotics also increases the cost of treatment unnecessarily.

The value of antibiotics

Modern medical care often relies on antibiotics. Antibiotics are an effective treatment for curing infection and speeding recovery from illness. They are readily available and relatively free from harmful side-effects.

Antibiotic misuse by health workers

With an ever-increasing number of antibiotics becoming available to treat bacterial infections, health workers must be careful to choose the most appropriate drug for each infection. They also need to consider specific health risks, such as an allergy to the antibiotic, and whether the patient is able to follow the complete treatment requirements. Medical expertise is needed to make appropriate decisions about the type of drug, its dose, how frequently it is given and the duration of treatment.

Patient responsibility

No matter how effective a drug may be, it will not work properly if the patient does not follow the instructions. Often, people will stop taking the antibiotics as soon as they feel better, and not finish the complete course of treatment. This may reduce the effectiveness of the cure and can even cause the infection to worsen. Sometimes people take an overdose, in the false belief that by taking more of the drug they will get better faster. The importance of completing the full course of antibiotics and taking the correct dose at the stated times, must be emphasised by the doctor prescribing the antibiotics and the pharmacist who dispenses them. People should be careful when buying antibiotics. They should buy them from a reliable pharmacist and check that the antibiotics are genuine and are not out of date. Antibiotics should be stored in cool and dry conditions.

Reducing antibiotic misuse

Doctors and pharmacists who provide antibiotics should ensure that whenever an antibiotic is given, the dose and duration of use are appropriate and understood by the patient. Hospitals should adopt measures that restrict the use of stronger antibiotics, and monitor resistance to antibiotics. Patients should take responsibility not to buy antibiotics without a prescription, and if prescribed, to follow the treatment plan fully and accurately.

Theodore Mbata
Department of Applied Microbiology and Brewing
Nnamdi Azikiwe University
P.M.B 5025
[email protected]

Common misuse

Common misuses of antibiotics by health workers include:

  • prescribing antibiotics when no bacterial infection exists
  • prescribing the wrong drug, or the wrong dose, to treat an infection that does exist
  • prescribing antibiotics for longer than is necessary
  • prescribing a strong antibiotic, when a less strong one would be as effective
  • choosing an expensive drug when a cheaper but equally effective or slightly less effective one will be adequate.

Common misuses by patients:

  • demanding antibiotics even when the doctor thinks it is unnecessary, or buying antibiotics without a prescription
  • not finishing the course of treatment because they stop taking the antibiotics as soon as they feel better. 

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