Strep throat and the flu are just two of the diseases that healthcare providers treat with antimicrobial medications. But, sometimes the medicines don’t work. This antimicrobial resistance is, according to the WHO, one of the top 10 global public health threats.
Antimicrobials are medications that treat diseases caused by microbes. In this context, the word “resistance” means a lack of sensitivity to those medications. To resist an antimicrobial is to stop the medication from working.
This can lead to:
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Microbes are tiny organisms that can enter your body. Examples of microbes include:
Microbes have lived on earth for 3.5 billion years in every type of environment, making them the most numerous and adaptable form of life on the planet.
Scientists have invented many antimicrobials – medications that treat illnesses caused by microbes. A very short list includes:
Microbes cause a variety of illnesses that antimicrobials treat. Some examples include:
If you have one of these illnesses and it’s caused by a resistant organism, your treatment may not work. Imagine enduring pneumonia and no matter how much penicillin you take, your symptoms never go away. The microbes inside you have evolved in a way that allows them to continue to live and grow inside you, despite the drugs designed to kill them.
This is an international problem – a global threat to public health.
A microbe has five goals once it enters your body:
When you take an antimicrobial, the medication kills most of the microbes. But resistant microbes may survive.
There are defense strategies a germ can use to resist the antimicrobial medication:
Antibiotic resistance refers specifically to resistance to bacteria. Antimicrobial resistance refers to resistance to bacteria, viruses, fungi and parasites.
Antimicrobial resistance wasn’t discovered all at once. To use penicillin as an example, this antibiotic was invented in 1941 and resistance was identified in:
According to the Centers for Disease Control (CDC), at least two million people per year in the United States become infected with resistant germs. At least 23,000 people die as a result. Each year, conditions caused by antimicrobial resistance lead to:
Anyone at any age can be affected by antimicrobial resistance, but you’re at a higher risk if you have a weak immune system or have frequent infections requiring antimicrobial therapy. The more you get sick, the greater chance you have of getting an infection with a resistance germ.
Antimicrobial resistance germs can spread between people, animals, plants and through food. They’re also found in the water, soil and air.
The following have a role in increasing the rate of antimicrobial resistance:
Diagnostic laboratory tests can find which microbe is causing an infection and determine whether the microbes present are resistant to certain antimicrobial medications. However, these tests can take days or even weeks. This is because microbes must grow in a laboratory before they can be identified.
Anyone with an antimicrobial-resistant infection may need to:
It’s not possible to eliminate antimicrobial resistance, as microbes will always be able to modify themselves and adapt to their environment. However, there are some ways you could limit your exposure:
The World Health Organization (WHO) says that antimicrobial resistance is one of the top ten global public health threats. It threatens to reverse the miracles of modern medicine. If antimicrobial resistance continues to advance at its current pace, there will come a time where healthcare providers will no longer be able to cure infections.
Fortunately, institutions like the WHO and the CDC are working to track, research, prevent and fight antimicrobial resistance.
Last reviewed by a Cleveland Clinic medical professional on 04/27/2021.
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