Infections caused by bacteria that are resistant to commonly prescribed antibiotics are emerging as one of the biggest public-health concerns of recent years. So-called superbugs were initially a problem unique to hospitals and clinics, but now cases are being reported among otherwise healthy people throughout the community. How did superbugs develop? Read on to find out more.

The Age of Antibiotics

The discovery of penicillin's antibacterial properties is often attributed to the Scottish scientist Sir Alexander Fleming in 1928. While researching the properties of staphylococci bacteria, he found, by accident, a section on his Petri dishes surrounding an invading mold where most of the bacteria did not grow.

This unintentional finding nearly 80 years ago started what we now know as the modern field of antibiotics. Interestingly, it was also Fleming who discovered antibiotic resistance in bacteria. Soon after Fleming's discovery, more classes of antibiotics, such as gramicidin and streptomycin, were discovered and prescribed for a range of diseases caused by bacterial infections.

Misuse of Antibiotics

Unfortunately, doctors and patients soon began misusing the medication and antibiotics continue to be misused at seemingly unprecedented levels, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). Sometimes, for example, a doctor may improperly prescribe an antibacterial drug for a disease that's viral or fungal in nature.

Patients often complicate matters by failing to complete the proper course of medication stopping when symptoms go away or using leftover pills to treat a possibly unrelated future infection. When this happens, treatment kills most but not all of the bacteria. According to the Mayo Clinic, the surviving bacteria are resistant to the current antibiotics, causing doctors to prescribe a stronger antibiotic. But the bacteria can learn to withstand the more potent drug as well, perpetuating a cycle in which increasingly powerful drugs are required to treat infections.


Health Crisis

If this happens in one person, it is unfortunate, but when it happens to a thousand people, it is a public-health crisis. The problem often renders cheap, widely used antibiotics useless. According to the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, it then forces the use of high-powered treatment, which comes with an equally high-powered price. The cost of providing the more expensive treatment can drive insurance premiums through the roof.

Fortunately, some laboratories, including the FDA, are dedicated to staying ahead of this health problem by creating more effective drugs to prevent potential outbreaks. It's also up to you, though, to do your part in this fight.