The Dark Side of Antibiotics

I have many memories of being sick as a child. I remember lying on the couch watching movies with our rented VCR and putting sympathy stickers given to me by my older sisters in my sticker book. I remember stopping by the meat market to buy a BBQ burger and bag of Cheetos before heading home to my sickbed, a spot on the living room couch. I have some vivid memories of being cooped up for days at a time. Once my teacher even called to invite me to the movies since I missed the last few weeks of school because of one of my latest spells.

From pneumonia to the shingles to the flu, I wasn’t one to win the perfect attendance awards handed out at the end of the year. In contrast, my best friend M, seldom missed school. When she came down with something, strep throat was the usual culprit, she was whisked off to the doctor, started on a round of antibiotics, and then returned to school later that day or the next at the latest. Even today, when M or her children get sick she follows her usual protocol, a quick visit to the doctor, the appropriate medicine and all is well.

The difference in our getting-well-routines no doubt had something to do with the fact that M’s mother worked outside the home whereas my mother was a stay-at-home mom. Of course, I now understand how difficult it is to take off days, not to mention weeks, at a time to take care of a sick child. My mother had the luxury of letting my body heal itself, when it would comply, because she wasn’t having to use up precious sick days.

Because of my childhood I’ve always hesitated to use medicine. Not always a blessing, this has caused me some problems when medicine has truly been the best course of action for one ailment or another. But besides from my belief that in many cases the body can heal itself is my weariness at the possible negative effects of taking this or that drug. Once again I blame my childhood because I was known for having reactions to numerous drugs: hives, bruises, etc.

So when articles such as, Antibiotics account for 19% of emergency department visits in US for adverse events and Antibiotics may be linked to risk of cancer, are released my anxiety increases dramatically. Whereas many people would shrug off articles like these, I examine the facts trying to make heads or tails of the significance of the findings.

And in these cases, both articles provide good information about antibiotic usage. The first article discusses the fact that about 19% of ER visits are related to adverse events related to antibiotics. Many of these cases, about 80%, have to do with allergic reactions while some are caused by overdoses or errors.

In the second article, researchers have found some evidence that antibiotics may increase the risk of certain types of cancer. The results are far from concrete though and researchers note that:

… the observational design of the study means that they cannot say whether antibiotic use causes cancer or whether other factors, such as infectious agents or behavioral factors, explain the findings.

The most useful information is related to the use of antibiotics for respiratory tract infections. John Bartlett, a specialist in infectious diseases at Johns Hopkins University, Baltimore notes that many respiratory tract infections are not due to bacterial infections and therefore are not going to respond to antibiotics. In those cases of course, using antibiotics would not be the smart choice.

Both studies seem to add fuel to the already current idea that prescribing antibiotics should not be done recklessly. But even though this overriding attitude has been standard for a few years now, many people still think of antibiotics as the answer to their aches and pains. And, like my friend M, there are reasons for this that are far-removed from any medical implications. Allowing your body to heal itself is not necessarily a quick process. And in today’s fast paced world, that is an unpopular notion.


R. Dobson (2008). Antibiotics may be linked to risk of cancer BMJ, 337 (aug21 3) DOI: 10.1136/bmj.a1381

B. Roehr (2008). Antibiotics account for 19% of emergency department visits in US for adverse events BMJ, 337 (aug15 2) DOI: 10.1136/bmj.a1324

J. R. White

J. R. White is a graduate of the University of Texas at Austin. She has over five years of experience in education and pedagogy.
See All Posts By The Author