What You Need to Know About Antibiotic Resistance

Medically Reviewed by Carol DerSarkissian, MD on August 03, 2022

Imagine you develop an infection -- anything from a typical urinary tract infection to tuberculosis. Now imagine there's nothing doctors can do.

The discovery of antibiotics changed medicine in the 20th century. Today, they're widely used to treat infections caused by bacteria. More than 150 million prescriptions are written for antibiotics in the U.S. each year. But bacteria are starting to adapt to the drugs and are becoming harder to kill. That's called antibiotic resistance.

Some bacteria can naturally resist certain kinds of antibiotics. Others can become resistant if their genes change or they get drug-resistant genes from other bacteria. The longer and more often antibiotics are used, the less effective they are against those bacteria.

Antibiotic resistance has spread around the world, and it's making some diseases, such as meningitis or pneumonia, more difficult to treat. You might need stronger, more expensive drugs. Or you might need to take them longer. You also might not get well as quickly, or you could develop other health issues.

Each year, an estimated 2.8 million people in the U.S. develop infections that are resistant to antibiotics, resulting in deaths of more than 35,000 people. 

Resistance also makes it more difficult to care for people with chronic diseases. Some people need medical treatments like chemotherapy, surgery, or dialysis, and they sometimes take antibiotics to help reduce the risk of infection.

In 2020, the White House created a 5-year National Action Plan for Combatting Antibiotic Resistance. Its recommendations include:

  • Slowing the emergency of drug-resistant bacteria and prevent the spread of resistant infections
  • Advancing the use of rapid diagnostic tests to identify resistant bacteria 
  • Accelerating research and development of new antibiotics, vaccines, and other treatments
  • Improving worldwide collaboration and capacity for preventing, surveillance, and controlling antibiotic resistant bacteria 

To help fight antibiotic resistance and protect yourself against infection:

  • Don't take antibiotics unless you're certain you need them. An estimated 30% of the millions of prescriptions written each year are not needed. Always ask your doctor if antibiotics will really help. For illnesses caused by viruses -- common colds, bronchitis, and many ear and sinus infections -- they won't.
  • Finish your pills. Take your entire prescription exactly as directed. Do it even if you start feeling better. If you stop before the infection is completely wiped out, those bacteria are more likely to become drug-resistant.
  • Get vaccinated. Immunizations can protect you against some diseases that are treated with antibiotics. They include tetanus and whooping cough.
  • Stay safe in the hospital. Antibiotic-resistant bacteria are commonly found in hospitals. Make sure your caregivers wash their hands properly. Also, ask how to keep surgical wounds free of infection.


Show Sources


Alliance for the Prudent Use of Antibiotics: "General Background: About Antibiotic Resistance."

American Academy of Pediatrics: "The History of Antibiotics."

Centers for Disease Control: "Antibiotic/Antimicrobial Resistance: Protecting Yourself and Your Family."

National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases: "Diseases and infections caused by microbes."

U.S. Food & Drug Administration: "Combatting antibiotic resistance."

The White House: "National Action Plan for Combatting Antibiotic Resistance."

World Health Organization: "Antimicrobial resistance: Key Facts," "Does stopping a course of antibiotics early lead to antibiotic resistance?"

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