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Cold, Flu, & Cough Health Center

Antibiotic Overuse May Be Bad for Body's Good Bacteria

Some Researchers Believe Changes in Helpful Bacteria May Be Contributing to Obesity, Asthma
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WebMD Health News
Reviewed by Laura J. Martin, MD

Aug. 24, 2011 -- Antibiotic overuse doesn’t just lead to drug-resistant superbugs, it may also permanently wipe out the body’s good bacteria. 

Good bacteria in the gut help people in many ways, including helping make vitamins and boosting immunity. Some researchers think that killing them off with antibiotics may be contributing to rises in chronic health conditions such as obesity, asthma, and cancer.

A commentary published in the latest issue of Nature calls for more careful prescribing of antibiotics, particularly in pregnant women and babies, who are just establishing their colonies of good bacteria in the gut. The commentary was written by Martin Blaser, MD, who heads the department of medicine at New York University’s Langone Medical Center.

Growing Antibiotic Use

Blaser points out that in a developed country like the U.S., the average child gets 10 to 20 courses of antibiotics by age 18.

Blaser says there’s no question that antibiotics, when given appropriately, save lives.

But they're not always used appropriately. Studies have shown that doctors often prescribe antibiotics before they know whether an infection is viral or bacterial. If the problem is a virus, antibiotics don't help.

For example, a 2003 study published in the Journal of the American Medical Association showed that doctors prescribed antibiotics for more than 60% of adults with upper respiratory tract infections, which are usually caused by viruses.

And a 2010 study published in Infection Control and Hospital Epidemiology found that doctors sometimes kept patients on antibiotics even after tests showed they had viral infections.

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