When was the last time you were sick? Sometimes when we’re sick, we take over-the-counter medications to feel better. Sometimes, though, we need to go see the doctor. Why? There are some illnesses that can only be fought with the help of special medicines that doctors must prescribe for us.

For example, strep throat is a common illness that many children face each year. What starts out as a sore throat may progress to a fever, a headache, and other symptoms. Since strep throat is caused by bacteria that doctors can identify with a simple test, a visit to the doctor is usually necessary to get a prescription for a special type of medicine called an antibiotic.

Used since the 1940s, antibiotics are special drugs that help us feel better by battling the harmful bacteria that can cause various illnesses. Because there are so many types of harmful bacteria in the world, scientists have developed thousands of antibiotics and more continue to be invented every year.

When you go to the doctor, you won’t always get an antibiotic prescribed for you. Sometimes the illness you have will be caused by a virus. Because viruses rarely, if ever, respond to antibiotics, doctors will usually not prescribe an antibiotic if they believe your illness is caused by a virus.

Although it can be disappointing to go to the doctor only to be sent away without a prescription for a medicine to make you feel better, it’s best to use antibiotics sparingly. Doctors have noticed in recent years that overusing antibiotics can lead to the development of resistant bacteria.

For example, let’s say you have an illness caused by a virus. If you take antibiotics, they won’t kill the virus causing your illness. To the extent that you have a few harmful bacteria in your system, these bacteria get used to the presence of antibiotics and, over time, they can learn how to resist the effects of antibiotics. Scientists call this bacterial or antibiotic resistance.

The more resistant bacteria become, the harder they are to kill. If you become infected with resistant bacteria, doctors may have to give you higher doses of stronger antibiotics to kill these resistant bacteria. Higher doses of stronger antibiotics often have more side effects, and it can take longer to cure illnesses.

Is antibiotic resistance really a big deal? It is! The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention have called antibiotic resistance “one of the world’s most pressing public health problems.” Many diseases that were once easily treated with antibiotics have become harder to treat today. Examples of such diseases include pneumonia, ear infections, sinus infections, meningitis, and tuberculosis.

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