How Overusing Antibiotics Is Affecting Our Acquired Immunity
Since the invention of antibiotics in the 1920s, they have been literal lifesavers. Antibiotics were invented by Alexander Fleming when he discovered that a mold could break down and kill bacteria. That mold was penicillium – the antibiotic now known as penicillin. It wasn’t available for use until the 1940s, but since then it has saved countless lives from bacterial infections that would have otherwise had grave consequences.
Because of Fleming’s invention, there are now dozens of different antibiotics available, all of which can help to eradicate bacterial infections of all different origins. While antibiotics have been great for society as a whole, there are some downfalls when it comes to how widely and how often they have been used in recent decades, especially when it comes to acquired immunity. Let’s take a look at how overusing antibiotics is affecting our acquired immunity, and what we can do about it.
What is acquired immunity?
The body’s immune system is complex in nature. It is made up of a network of cells and proteins designed to protect the body against outside invaders such as viruses and bacteria. It is the body’s first line of defense against anything that may cause it harm. The specific parts of the immune system include white blood cells, antibodies, the complement and lymphatic systems, the spleen, bone marrow, and the thymus. Within this system are two types of immunity: innate immunity, which is what every human is born with, and acquired immunity.
While innate immunity is designed to protect against any and all pathogens that it encounters, acquired immunity is a little different. Developed over time, it is made up of specialized cells that target specific pathogens by creating antibodies designed to remember them in case the body ever encounters them again. It helps to build a wide variety of defense lines and create a system that can protect against various diseases and pathogens.
How do antibiotics affect the immune system?
Although antibiotics help the body fight off infections, they can also harm the body in other ways. One such way is by killing off good bacteria found in the stomach. The normal healthy bacteria that is utilized by the body, including the immune system, falls out of balance and can cause other health issues. Some of the gut bacteria that can be killed off during an antibiotics course are actually there to help the immune system fight off fungal infections.
Changes in the good bacteria that live within the digestive tract can also make the body more susceptible to infection if a pathogen does happen to get by its defense lines. Researchers have noted that this change could actually be permanent.
Antibiotics also have the ability to weaken the efficacy of immune cells, making them less able to kill off bacteria. What’s even worse is that those weakened immune cells have also been changed to the point where they protect the pathogen instead of killing it. These changes in the gut flora, and in the antibiotics’ ability to weaken the cells in the immune system, could potentially cause bacteria and viruses to flourish.
What are the effects of the overuse of antibiotics?
Antibiotic overuse is generally characterized as a person taking antibiotics when they don’t really need them. Doctors may prescribe antibiotics when they are not needed in situations where they are unsure of the cause of a specific illness while waiting for test results. Many cases of a sore throat are a good example of this. Most sore throats are caused by things that are not treated with antibiotics, such as viruses or allergies, but in some cases, the cause could be strep throat which is a bacterial infection. This limitation of immediate diagnosis can lead to the over-prescription of antibiotics.
The issue with overuse of antibiotics is that it can change bacteria and lead to bacterial resistance, or antibiotics resistance – rendering certain bacteria essentially immune to antibiotics. Some specific bacteria, such as Staphylococcus Aureus, are already resistant to most antibiotic medications on the market today.
This resistance can make certain bacteria more dangerous and lead to further and worsened infections. The overuse of antibiotics has become so dire that the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention have called it “one of the greatest public health challenge of our time.”
Why is antibiotics resistance a public health challenge?
Antibiotic resistance doesn’t just occur within your own body. The use of antibiotics by anyone can contribute to it. Whenever germs are exposed to the medication and develop antibiotic resistance, they bring that resistance along with them when they spread to other people. This poses a health threat to anyone who comes into contact with the altered germ or bacteria.
Antibiotics resistance solutions
Although antibiotic resistance is an ongoing public health issue, there are ways you can do your part to decrease it (as well as avoiding the overuse of antibiotics for your own health). The World Health Organization has outlined guidelines such as:
- Only using antibiotics when they are prescribed to you by a certified health professional
- Not asking for or demanding antibiotics
- Never sharing your antibiotics with others
- Doing your part to prevent infections by practicing good hygiene (washing your hands, preparing food in a hygienic way, avoiding close contact with those who are ill, and keeping up to date on all your vaccinations)
Antibiotic resistance is a public health threat, but if you do your part, you can help slow its progression – and keep yourself safe and healthy in the process.