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Understanding Antibiotics and Their Role


Preventing the spread of infection by eliminating the misuse of antibiotics


For decades, bacteria-fighting drugs known as antibiotics have helped to control and destroy many of the harmful bacteria that cause illness. Antibiotics are among the most commonly prescribed drugs for people. They can be  effective against bacterial infections, such as strep throat and some types of pneumonia, diarrheal diseases, and ear infections, but are ineffective against viruses, such as those that cause colds or flu.


Recently, however, antibiotics have become weak against certain types of bacteria, leading to the overuse of antibiotics and the rise of drugresistant “superbugs.”


When used properly, antibiotics can help destroy disease-causing bacteria, but if taken for a viral infection like the flu, the drug won’t work. Instead, it will destroy a wide variety of bacteria in the body, including some of the “good” bacteria that digest food, fight infection, and help individuals stay healthy. Bacteria that are tough enough to survive the drug will have a chance to grow and quickly multiply to become strains that spread to other people.


Over time, and with overuse of antibiotics, drug-resistant bacteria can continue to thrive and spread, sharing their drug-resistant traits with other bacteria and rendering drugs ineffective.


Scientists have attempted to keep pace with newly emerging drug-resistant bacteria by developing new drugs, but the underlying issue remains the same. For the cleaning and hygiene industry, it’s important to stay one step ahead of this issue to understand the trends and best practices that impact the spread of disease.


Fighting Drug-Resistant Bacteria


Individuals can help slow the spread of drug-resistant bacteria by taking antibiotics properly and only when needed. The challenge is that some parents expect doctors to prescribe antibiotics for, say, a child’s ear infection. But experts recommend delaying for a time in certain situations because ear infections can resolve without antibiotics.


In fact, one recent study showed that antibiotics may be less effective than previously thought for treating certain sinus infections. This kind of research can help prevent the misuse and overuse of antibiotics.



In the past, research has shown that some of the most dangerous superbugs have been confined to healthcare settings. This may be because people who are sick or in a weakened state are generally the most susceptible to picking up infections.


Cleaner Hospital Settings


Part of the battle to resolve this issue of antibiotics’ usage involves hospitals and health systems setting stronger hygiene standards to help curb healthcare-associated infections (HAIs), with a focus on hospital fixtures that are most vulnerable to contamination.


Although hospitals often implement cleaning systems and efforts to get physicians to clean their hands more thoroughly, certain hospital fixtures are particularly susceptible to contamination, such as bed railings, wheelchairs, IV pumps and stethoscopes.


Some hospitals have prioritized “environmental hygiene” as a method to fight the spread of HAIs, which includes a focus on susceptible fixtures like telephones, call buttons, IV poles, stethoscopes and computer keyboards. Hospitals have also enforced rules around having a computer in every patient room for staff to access records in order to avoid taking a computer from room to room and spreading germs.


Unfortunately, superbug infections aren’t limited to hospitals. Some strains are out in our communities as well. This becomes of greater concern during flu season for all of us.


Tackling This Year’s Flu Season


Many people will develop an acute respiratory tract infection (RTI) every year. Unfortunately, an estimated 50 percent of antibiotic prescriptions for acute respiratory conditions are deemed unnecessary: this includes ear infections, sinus infections, sore throats, pneumonia, acute bronchitis, bronchiolitis, upper respiratory infections (i.e., common colds), influenza, asthma, allergy, and viral pneumonia.


Data from the Centers for Disease Control reveals that each year two million Americans acquire serious bacterial infections that are resistant to one or more prescribed antibiotics, and at least 23,000 people die as a direct result of these antibiotic-resistant infections.


It can’t be stated too often that antibiotics should only be prescribed in the treatment of bacterial infections. The problem is that many commonly encountered respiratory pathogens—viral and bacterial—have similar clinical presentation, which can make a diagnosis on symptoms alone difficult.


Diagnostic Solution



One solution for battling this trend is a pathogen panel designed to quickly identify the differences between viral and bacterial infections. Respiratory pathogen panels, for instance, provide rapid, accurate diagnostic testing to ensure appropriate prescriptions by doctors.


There are companies, such as RDx, that work with physicians to utilize pathogen panels to prevent the spread of infection and eliminate the misuse of antibiotics, a threat which costs the U.S. healthcare system over $20 billion annually.


In a single test, an FDA-cleared respiratory panel can detect 21 bacterial and viral pathogens from the upper and lower respiratory tract. Providing an overall sensitivity of 95 percent and specificity of 99 percent, the test can enable identification of secondary or multiple infections. In the long run, this approach may help to eliminate the spread of  infections, which could, in turn, mitigate the reliance on antibiotics and allow cleaning and hygiene professionals to see positive results from their efforts to prevent this issue progressing further.


By Scott Howell, D.O., MPH &TM, CPE, Chief Medical Officer, RDx BioScience