By Dr Jane Healy

Antibiotic resistance is when bacteria change to protect themselves from an antibiotic. They become no longer sensitive to the antibiotic and can live and multiply in the presence of it.

Antibiotics are used in the treatment of bacterial infections. They have no role in the treatment of colds, flus, or other viral infections. In the community setting the most common use of antibiotics is for upper respiratory tract infections. However, even in some bacterial conditions, such as ear infections, we have seen that in the absence of a fever there is no change in the outcome when antibiotics are not used.

So what is antibiotic resistance?
Antibiotic resistance occurs when bacteria develop an ability to survive and grow in the presence of an antibiotic. Bacteria multiply quickly and with each multiplication an error can occur which can provide a survival advantage. This results in the bacteria becoming resistant to the antibiotic. Bacteria can also develop resistance through passage of material from one bacteria to the next.

antiboticsWhat causes antibiotic resistance?
The main reasons of antibiotic resistance include:

  1. The use of antibiotics incorrectly, for example in the treatment of a cold.
  2. The incorrect taking of antibiotics. Not taking antibiotics as directed or for their prescribed length of time.
  3. The misuse of antibiotics in the farming industry.

What does antibiotic resistance mean?
Antibiotics have had a role in the treatment of infectious diseases since the 1940’s. They have significantly improved our quality of life and our length of life. They have allowed us to treat diseases that we were previously unable to treat. Now with antibiotic resistance, bacterial infections are becoming harder to treat.

What can we do?
There are things that we can do. They include good health hygiene, prevention and appropriate antibiotic prescribing and use.


  • Immunisation! By immunising against disease it means we don’t need to treat the disease
  • Good hand washing
  • Covering your nose and mouth when coughing and sneezing
  • Staying home when unwell.

Antibiotic use

  • Taking antibiotics as directed and for the prescribed length of time

One of the more interesting stories my father told me about his childhood was when he was 10, he became unwell with scarlet fever. At the time scarlet fever had a mortality rate between 3-30% depending on the country you were born in. He was the first person in his family to be given this wonderful new drug, penicillin. Antibiotics have made a significant impact on our health and longer living, let’s see if we can give this wonder drug a longer life!