Antibiotics are widely overprescribed today with very few people understanding what’s at risk. According to the Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA), “Approximately 30% of all oral antibiotics prescribed in US outpatient settings are unnecessary.” Within the dental community this is especially evident as we see patients requesting antibiotic prescriptions before dental procedures without any medical justification.
Understanding the role of antibiotics
According to The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), studies suggest that 47 million needless prescriptions are written each year. That is a huge number! Part of the problem is that there’s a general misconception among patients about the role antibiotics should play, and so we see requests for antibiotics when they’re not actually necessary.
Antibiotics are chemicals that kill or inhibit the growth of bacteria. They are used to treat bacterial infections. Antibiotics are not painkillers and they cannot be used to treat viral infections. When you take an antibiotic to treat a virus like the flu, instead of fighting the infection, it’ll destroy a wide variety of bacteria in your body, including some of the “good” bacteria that help you digest food, and stay healthy.
When it comes to managing dental conditions, antibiotics can actually do more harm than good. Many patients request antibiotics when they have a toothache or dental abscess because they think it will alleviate the pain. Dental pain comes from the nerve of the tooth – to remove the pain you must remove the source, either by extraction, or doing a root canal. Only when soft tissue is involved and you begin to see facial swelling does an antibiotic become necessary; however the source of the pain still must be treated as well (i.e. extraction, etc.).
What’s at risk?
The over-prescribing of antibiotics can put patients at unnecessary risk for complications associated with their use. Allergic reactions, vomiting, and diarrhea are all common side effects of antibiotics. Some side effects can be more severe, especially those associated with stronger antibiotics, including deafness, numbness in the extremities and a deadly form of antibiotic-associated diarrhea, known as Clostridium difficile.
The larger systemic issue is that the overuse of antibiotics has caused some bacteria to become drug resistant over time. “Each year, more than 2 million people in the U.S. are infected with a bacterium that has become resistant to one or more antibiotic medication designed to kill it,” (Federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention). At least 23,000 people have died as a direct result of these “superbugs”.
You can help slow the spread of resistant bacteria by taking antibiotics only as directed and following all instructions. Listen to your doctor when it comes to prescriptions, they’ll know when antibiotics are appropriate and when they are not.