Antibiotics can save lives by fighting bacterial infections, but that’s not to say that they’re without risk. These strong medicines can have some alarming side effects, as well, resulting in thousands of lawsuits each year.
What kinds of side effects do antibiotics cause?
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It’s been estimated that over 140,000 emergency visits are made to the hospital each year due to antibiotic-associated side effects, with allergic reactions being the most common. “Minimizing unnecessary antibiotic use by even a small percentage could significantly reduce the immediate and direct risks of drug-related adverse events in individual patients,” a 2007 study showed.
Oral fluoroquinolones are the most popular antibiotics, and include Cipro (ciprofloxacin), Levaquin (levofloxafin) and Avelox (moxifloxacin). But taking these antibiotics increases your risk of developing a retinal detachment by five times compared with nonusers, a recent study shows.
In 2006, consumer group Public Citizen petitioned the FDA to place a warning on fluoroquinolones warning of the potential for tendon ruptures. “The tendon that most frequently ruptures is the Achilles tendon, which causes sudden and severe pain, swelling and bruising, and difficulty walking,” a press release states, adding that ruptures have also occurred in the rotator cuff, biceps, hand and thumb.
“One theory is that fluoroquinolones are toxic to tendon fibers and may decrease blood supply in tendons that already have a limited blood supply,” the press release reads. It was not until 2008 that the FDA began to require a warning label.
In addition, a Swedish study found that these types of antibiotics can sometimes cause peripheral neuropathy, a condition that causes numbness and pain in the hands and feet, although the number of reported cases was small.
Another dangerous antibiotic, azithromycin, was recently shown to nearly triple cardiovascular mortality compared to the rate for a group of patients who didn’t take the antibiotic. Although deaths associated with the use of this antibiotic are rare, the highest rate was seen in people with cardiovascular disease.
Are antibiotics used too often?
Antibiotics are overused “by lazy doctors who are trying to kill a fly with an automatic weapon,” pharmacological epidemiologist Mahyar Etiman told the New York Times.
For example, antibiotics don’t work against colds, flu, and viral infections such as bronchitis, but are sometimes prescribed anyway.
Sore throats are often prescribed antibiotics, but according to updated (voluntary) guidelines released by the Infectious Disease Society of America (IDSA) this week, a sore throat is likely to be a virus, not strep throat.
Overusing antibiotics for viruses or conditions in which they’re not required can lead to antibiotic resistance, which means that these powerful drugs become less effective at fighting the bacteria they’re actually intended to treat. In fact, infectious organisms adapt to the antibiotics, developing new strains of bacteria that are immune to it.
In the example of strep throat, the revised IDSA guidelines recommend penicillin or amoxicillin for treatment, since strep is becoming resistant to broader-spectrum (and pricier) antibiotics which were commonly prescribed in the past, including azithromycin and other macrolides.
A scarier drug-resistant bacteria is methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus, or MRSA, also known as staph infection. There is a clear association between antibiotics and MRSA, a 2007 review of 76 studies with close to 25,000 patients showed. MRSA often causes mild skin infections, but it can also be more serious and even life threatening. The infection is hard to treat, and can even infect the lungs, bloodstream heart valve, bones, joints, or lungs.
The overuse of antibiotics can also make one susceptible to Clostridium dificile, which can cause diarrhea, abdominal cramping and pain, and other unpleasant symptoms. The infection can even cause colitis.
What To Do
Do not pressure your doctor to prescribe antibiotics for viruses, including colds, flus, most coughs, bronchitis, and sore throats not caused by strep. If you are prescribed antibiotics, make sure to follow the instructions on the bottle carefully, and to complete the entire bottle as prescribed even if you feel better better earlier on.
Check with your doctor to see what the common side effects for the antibiotics he or she wants to prescribe, and if there are any alternatives. Contact your doctor immediately if you are suffering from any unusual symptoms.