Antibiotic resistance is happening now - and it's a real problem

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Antibiotics are wonderful.

When our children are sick with a bacterial infection, it's great to see how quickly they get better when taking the right antibiotic.

But this might not always be the case.

That's because antibiotic resistance is a real problem we face today. And its effects on ourselves - and our children - can be devastating.

Antibiotic resistance is the term used to describe the situation that occurs when bacteria become resistant to the antibiotics that are meant to treat them. In other words, those antibiotics are now no longer effective at fighting those bacteria.

And it's a "real problem" that's happening right now, says Dr Brendan McMullan, Paediatric Infectious Diseases Physician and Microbiologist at UNSW.

He says when you become sick with a bacterial illness that is resistant to antibiotics, you're likely to be sick for longer and have more complications from your illness. You also risk passing those resistant bacteria onto other people.

"In some cases, people have died from bacterial infections for which there were no remaining effective antibiotics."

The good news is there are lots of ways we can help fight this problem.

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One of the most important things we can do is to only use antibiotics when needed.

That is, only take antibiotics if you are told from your doctor that you need to take them. Taking antibiotics when you don't need them (such as when you have a viral illness like a cold or flu), adds to the problem.

Also, don't pressure your doctor for a script "just in case". Instead, explain that you only want to use antibiotics if they're needed.

If you do need to take antibiotics, follow the instructions carefully. Take the right dose of antibiotic at the right time, and complete the course your doctor prescribed. If you leave too much time between taking your antibiotics, you risk the bacteria you're trying to fight becoming more resistant to the drug.

Dr McMullan says if you have any leftover antibiotics after completing a course, get rid of them so you don't end up sharing them with others or using leftover antibiotics. It's best to return them to the pharmacy for them to dispose of properly, avoid throwing them in the bin which can be harmful to the environment.

Next, take simple measures to prevent infections spreading to others.

These include proper hand washing when sick, and getting vaccines to prevent illness.

Cover your mouth with a tissue when sneezing or coughing, and throw them in the bin straight after. Alternatively you can sneeze or cough into your elbow.   Always wash your hands after sneezing, coughing, going to the bathroom and before preparing food.

If we don't all pitch in to try to halt the problem, Dr McMullan warns of the potential consequences for both ourselves, and our children.

"If antibiotic resistance continues, drug-resistant infections may kill an extra 10 million people a year worldwide by 2050."

To put that in perspective, he says: "That's more people than currently die from cancer".

So, instead of believing antibiotic resistance isn't a real issue, or that it's one we don't have to worry about for a while, it's time to think again.

Find out more information about colds, flu and antibiotic resistance.