Antibiotics and antibiotic resistance can rapidly become abstract terms, and it can seem a little strange that medicines I get from my family doctor can have an impact that goes beyond hopefully (but probably not) making me better quickly. What’s the connection between my cold and future ‘superbugs’? Let’s get one thing clear from the start: it’s the bacteria that develop resistance, not us. The word ‘resistance’ comes from the Latin resistere, meaning to withstand or oppose. So just as we use antibiotics to withstand bacteria, the bacteria develop defence mechanisms (there are several types) against the antibiotic. Some bacteria may also exchange these ‘defence secrets’ among themselves.
This is why your doctor tries to take a sample from where the bacteria are present. The sample can then be cultivated in the laboratory to expose the bacteria to different types of antibiotics to see which are effective and which are not, enabling treatment to be as targeted as possible. You may also have heard the terms ‘narrow-spectrum’ and ‘wide-spectrum’ in connection with choice of antibiotics.
As mentioned in the previous blog post, there are many different types of antibiotics, all of which work in different ways. For simplicity, we can say that the narrow-spectrum antibiotics are only effective against some types of bacteria and work in a specific way, while the broad-spectrum antibiotics have many different mechanisms of action and can therefore be used against several types of bacteria. It is these mechanisms of action or points of attack to which the bacteria become resistant. The aim is therefore to target antibiotics as accurately as possible, to avoid the bacteria ‘learning’ more than is necessary.
So if your doctor takes a sample from you and waits for the results before – possibly – giving you antibiotics, he or she is doing a good job, and the same applies if you are given a narrow-spectrum antibiotic. As a rule of thumb, you can distinguish between narrow- and broad-spectrum antibiotics based on how many times you have to take them. If you have to take one or two tablets a day, it’s likely to be broad-spectrum, while if you have to take three or four, it’s narrow-spectrum.
These posts are extremely simplified but WMC hopes they help to demystify antibiotic resistance a little. Bacteria are everywhere, and if we are no longer able to treat infections, almost all modern medicine will become a high-risk sport. So be curious, and next time you go to see your doctor with an infection, ask questions – it’s important!