Senior Health and Wellness: Protect Against Antibiotic Overuse

The first antibiotic, penicillin, marked a turning point in medical history. 1928 was the first year physicians could cure potentially deadly infectious diseases. Indeed, antibiotics significantly reduce illness and death from infectious diseases. As often happens with a “good thing,” over time, antibiotics have become overused. Consequently, antibiotics have become less effective at addressing dangerous bacterial infections. At this juncture, more than 2 million people in the United States become infected with bacteria resistant to antibiotics each year. More than 23,000 people die annually as a result of antibiotic-resistant infections. Seniors and very young children are at particular risk due to antibiotic-resistant bacteria. In this article, we discuss how seniors (and their loved ones) can protect themselves against antibiotic overuse and its consequences.

National Action Plan For Combating Antibiotic-Resistant Bacteria

Before further discussing protecting seniors against antibiotic overuse and resistance, we provide an overview of the National Action Plan for Combating Antibiotic-Resistant Bacteria. This plan has five key stated objectives:

  • Slow the emergence of resistant bacteria and prevent the spread of resistant infections
  • Strengthen national surveillance efforts to combat resistance
  • Advanced development and use of rapid and innovative diagnostic tests for the identification and characterization of resistant bacteria
  • Accelerate basic and applied research and development for new antibiotics, antifungals, other therapeutics, and vaccines
  • Improve international collaboration and capacities for antimicrobial-resistance prevention, surveillance, control, and drug research and development

To achieve these objectives, the National Action Plan for Combating Antibiotic-Resistant Bacteria has identified a trio of strategies:

  • Improve tracking of antimicrobial-resistant bacteria
  • Increase the life of current antibiotics and antifungals by improving the use and implementing interventions
  • Increase speed to discover and develop new antibiotics, antifungals, and other interventions

Understanding Antibiotic Resistance

The cause of antibiotic resistance is rather simple. Each time an individual uses antibiotics, sensitive bacteria are killed. However, there will be resistant bacteria that can be left to grow and multiply. Bacteria can develop ways to fight off antibiotics by:

  • preventing antibiotics from reaching their target cells (for example, changing the permeability of cell walls or pumping the drugs out of the cells)
  • altering the structure of target cells or entirely replacing cells
  • producing enzymes that destroy antibiotics

When bacteria undergo these changes, they no longer respond or are resistant to antibiotics.

As more and more antibiotics are used globally, resistance becomes increasingly commonplace. We all contribute to infections becoming tougher to treat because we pass around antibiotic-resistant infections.

Repeated and improper uses of antibiotics are the primary causes of the increase in drug-resistant bacteria. When antibiotics do not work, infections often last longer, cause more severe illness, require more doctor visits or extended hospital stays, and involve more expensive and toxic medications.

Properly Treating Senior Patients

A vital fact must be understood. One-third of all deaths involving people in their Golden Years result from some infectious disease. Pneumonia is the deadliest type of infection, resulting in the death of seniors each year. Ninety percent of all deaths resulting from pneumonia occur in women and men 65 or older.

What technically is known as community-acquired bacterial pneumonia is the most frequently treated infectious disease in the United States. It is also one of the most serious. Community-acquired means that the infection was not caught in a hospital or institutional setting. In the United States, upwards of 10 million cases of community-acquired bacterial pneumonia cases are diagnosed each year. Of this number, over 1 million hospitalizations annually occur due to this type of bacterial infection.

Older adults are at greater risk for pneumonia and its more severe complications than younger individuals. Rebounding from a severe infection can take a significant toll on older adults. Many who survive pneumonia experience a significant multi-symptom illness with long recovery periods, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Examples of antibiotics that are used to treat respiratory tract infections among seniors include:

  • Azithromycin
  • Clarithromycin

The reality at this juncture in time is that most of the antibiotics used to treat respiratory tract infections are resistant to these types of antibiotics.

New antibiotics are being developed. One of these, solithromycin, can potentially treat pneumococcal pneumonia, including antibiotic-resistant cases of the disease, and is being studied for oral and intravenous administration.

As important as knowing when to treat is recognizing when antibiotics won’t work. Many other common infections in older adults, such as flu, herpes, and shingles, are not treatable with antibiotics.

Frontline Defense: Protecting Against Infection

Understanding that seniors are at particular risk of contracting a bacterial infection and understanding very real limitations associated with antibiotics in this day and age, prevention is ever more important. Seniors need to take some important steps to enhance protection against infection. To prevent viral infection, seniors need to obtain vaccinations as they may be available. When it comes to protecting against infections, some basic practices include:

  • Always practice good hygiene, including washing your hands, coughing, and sneezing into your elbow.
  • Stay home when sick, particularly around babies, seniors, or people with compromised immune systems.
  • Educate others and ensure you and your loved ones follow the doctor’s advice regarding infections and other health matters.

In closing, prudence is important when it comes to antibiotic use. Antibiotics should only be used when necessary to combat a bacterial infection. When prescribed a course of antibiotics, it is important to take all doses. If you are a senior or a caregiver for an older individual and have questions about infections, bacteria, and antibiotics, you should schedule a consultation with your doctor to learn more about these issues. If you think you have some infection, you should schedule an appointment with your doctor to determine what treatment alternatives are available.