12/05/2017 14:56 EST | Updated 12/05/2017 14:56 EST

Antibiotic Resistance: Why You Should Care

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Written by Sybil Millar, Communications Advisor for the Ross Tilley Burn Centre, Critical Care and Infectious Diseases programs at Sunnybrook.

If you've ever had a bacterial infection you're probably familiar with antibiotics, which are drugs that kill bacteria. They're essential for successfully treating and preventing serious infectious diseases.

Over the past century, access to effective antibiotics has saved millions of lives, and enabled major medical and surgical breakthroughs. The misuse and overuse of antibiotics, however, has contributed to a phenomenon known as antibiotic resistance.

"Antibiotic resistance is rising to dangerously high levels in all parts of the world, including Canada. It threatens our ability to treat common infectious diseases, resulting in prolonged illness, disability and death," says Christine Peragine, Pharmacist and Clinical Research Fellow in Antimicrobial Stewardship and Infectious Diseases at Sunnybrook.

Antibiotic resistance is increasing the overall cost of health care, by contributing to lengthier hospital stays for patients and more intensive care unit admissions.

It's also impacting many of the medical advancements we take for granted, like organ transplants, chemotherapy for cancer treatment, diabetes management and major surgeries. To be successful, these conditions and procedures require effective antibiotics, because they have a high risk of infection. If current trends continue, it will become more difficult to achieve good outcomes for patients.

Here's what you need to know about antibiotic resistance:

What is antibiotic resistance?

Resistance develops when potentially harmful bacteria change in a way that makes them immune to antibiotics. Resistant bacteria survive, multiply and spread, causing more harm.

How does antibiotic resistance happen?

Drug resistance is a natural evolutionary phenomenon. When people take antibiotics for a bacterial infection, the antibiotic kills off the "weaker" organisms. However, there may be some organisms that are resistant to the antibiotic, so they aren't killed off. This allows them to multiply and spread, meaning that the next generation of the bacterial infection will no longer respond to (or be killed off by) that antibiotic.

Why is antibiotic resistance a problem?

Antibiotic resistance is a problem because standard treatments become ineffective. An antibiotic that used to work on certain infections no longer does. People are unable to recover from infections, and may then spread those infections to others.

In Canada, the prevalence of resistant- and multi-drug resistant bacteria (also known as 'superbugs') is increasing. We are one step away from creating a superbug resistant to all commercially available antibiotics that would be capable of defeating every antibiotic in the medicine cabinet.

What can you do to reduce antibiotic resistance?

If you've been prescribed antibiotics, there are a few easy steps you can take to prevent antibiotic resistance:

1. Only take antibiotics in the way they have been prescribed to you

2. Don't ask for antibiotics to treat viral infections like colds and the flu. Antibiotics have no effect on viruses, and won't speed up your recovery from viral infections

3. Clean your hands often! It is possible to pass on antibiotic resistant bacteria to others, so prevent the spread of germs by practicing good hygiene

Discover more wellness tips from Sunnybrook experts at

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