Antibiotics are used to treat infections caused by bacteria. They were first developed in the 1920s and 1930s, and went into wider production during WWII. Since then, they have become a vital constituent of modern medicine.
These types of medicines are developed in a range of forms. The most widely prescribed tend to be tablets, but they are also given as oral suspension fluids, ointments, creams, IV drips and sometimes even as suppositories.
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A brief history of antibiotics
Scottish scientist Alexander Fleming is widely regarded as the first person to discover antibiotics as we know them today. This was reportedly due to a petri dish which he accidentally left on a surface near a window, while carrying out experiments in his lab in 1928. When returning to the dish, he found a mould had developed and caused the bacteria in the dish to retreat. Penicillium ruben, the antibacterial agent from the mould, would later go on to become penicillin.
A team of Bayer scientists was also instrumental in the early development of antibiotics in the 1930s, discovering the drug which would become known as Prontosil.
Over the remainder of the twentieth century, many more classes of antibiotics were engineered and released, to treat a range of different bacterial infections. They also became vital tools in the prevention of infection during surgical procedures, and the provision of cancer treatment.
One of the evolutionary characteristics of organisms, however, is their capacity to adapt and become resistant to their environments. Bacteria is no different. In the second half of the twentieth century, resistant strains of bacterial illnesses began to emerge that did not succumb to the effects of certain types of antibiotics.
One notable case of resistant bacterial strains which continues to be present today is super-gonorrhoea.
Consequently, new classes of antibiotics and different combinations have been employed to treat resistant infections.
For instance, the development of resistant gonorrhoea has meant that recommended first-line treatment for the condition has changed several times.
As resistance increases, the list of available antibiotics is becoming ever shorter, meaning that scientists, drug developers and healthcare providers face challenges in the coming years in ensuring that antibiotic medicine remains effective.
What conditions do antibiotics treat?
Antibiotics are used to treat bacterial infections. This includes: certain types of STIs, such as chlamydia and gonorrhoea; skin and tissue infections such as cellulitis; or urinary tract infections like cystitis. They are also occasionally used to prevent the development of infections following surgery.
When are antibiotics not suitable?
Antibiotics are not effective at treating viral infections. Some viruses will pass without the need for prescription medicine, whereas others (such as herpes) will be treated (or prevented) with antivirals. These work by halting the growth process of viral cells so that the immune system can fight off the infection.
Fungal infections (such as thrush or fungal nail infections) will usually require treatment with antifungal medication. This typically works by inhibiting the ability of fungal cells to maintain their cell structure. Once the fungal cells are reduced in number, fungal balance is restored and symptoms dissipate.
Antifungals are sometimes referred to as ‘antibiotics’ because they perform a similar function, however it is an inaccurate description. On occasion, a medication containing both an antibiotic ingredient as well as an antifungal ingredient may be issued to treat a fungal infection where there is a risk of a bacterial infection developing too.
Types of antibiotic
There are several classes of antibiotic, and these each attack bacterial cells in a slightly different way.
For example, quinolone antibiotics disrupt the structure and function of the bacterial DNA; aminoglycosides, tetracyclines and macrolides prevent the bacteria from producing self-sustaining proteins, thereby halting their growth; while glycopeptides compromise the cell walls of the bacteria, so that the cells cannot retain their contents.
The type of antibiotic used will usually depend on the type of bacteria responsible for the illness which is present in the patient.
Some examples of antibiotics unclude:
Do they cause side effects?
In most cases, antibiotics will not cause serious side effects.
However, some can cause side effects or severe allergic reactions.
If you notice anything unusual when taking them you should let you doctor know.
Digestive problems (such as stomach pain, or feeling or being sick) are the most common side effects associated with antibiotic use.
Can antibiotics interfere with other medicines?
Yes. It depends on the medicine, but you should let your doctor know during consultation about any other treatments you are using, be they prescription or nonprescription, so that they can assess the likelihood of interactions.
What about medical conditions or other health factors?
Some people won’t be able to use certain types of antibiotics. This includes women who are pregnant or breastfeeding, or those with certain illnesses or health issues.
Again, let your prescribing doctor know if you have any medical conditions whatsoever during consultation.
Can I drink alcohol when taking antibiotics?
It depends on the type you’re using.
Some may be rendered ineffective by alcohol consumption, whereas others may produce side effects when taken in conjunction with alcohol.
If you’re given a course of antibiotics and are unsure, you should ask your doctor whether drinking alcohol is safe to do during treatment. It may often be better to wait until your course has finished before drinking alcohol.
Can I drive while taking antibiotics?
Whether you’re able to drive when taking antibiotics depends on whether or not you have experienced any side effects, but also on how ill you are.
Not everyone using antibiotics will experience side effects, but those who do should refrain from driving themselves and let their doctor or nearest hospital know immediately.
If the infection which antibiotics have been issued for is causing symptoms that could inhibit your capacity to drive, then it is important you do not drive until you are well enough.
Can I get antibiotics over the counter?
You cannot buy antibiotics in the UK without a prescription from a doctor.
First of all, antibiotics are not a one-size-fits-all treatment. There are many different types adept at treating numerous different bacterial infections. A doctor will need to assess your condition before the right treatment can be issued.
Secondly, healthcare providers have a duty to prescribe antibiotics responsibly. The overprescription and overuse of these drugs is a contributing factor in global antibiotic resistance. Therefore, antibiotics should only be taken when necessary.
Thirdly, they are not a suitable ‘occasional’ treatment like many over the counter medicines. Antibiotics are always prescribed for a specified course, which must be completed by the patient. Failure to complete the course could enable the infection to return.
If you have queries or concerns about any antibiotics or you think you may require treatment, contact your doctor.
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