Medical Notes with Dr David Farren: When antibiotics stop working

Dr David Farren explains why antibiotics are not the answer to every ailment this winter

Over-use and misuse of antibiotics is causing the global rise of antibiotic resistance – it’s estimated that drug-resistant infections could kill an extra 10 million people annually by 2050.
Dr David Farren

WHEN we think of antibiotics, we think of something we take because we’ve got a chest infection or a cough which isn’t getting better. But did you know that antibiotics play a really important part in cancer treatment, certain surgeries such as hip replacements and for healthy women giving birth by Caesarean section?

Without antibiotics, we wouldn’t be able to offer chemotherapy safely and we could see women dying in childbirth from what we have come to think of as a routine procedure.

When we ask for antibiotics for a cold that isn’t going to get cured with antibiotics or are told by doctors about the importance of finishing a full course of antibiotics, we never think the consequences of these actions could be so devastating to so many people.

Over-use and misuse of antibiotics is causing the global rise of antibiotic resistance –this means antibiotics become less effective and don’t kill bacteria as well as they used to.

There have been no new antibiotics developed since the 1980s and, while there are some new ones being developed now, it will be years before they are ready to be used. We need to act now and reduce the amount we are using to safeguard what we have for the future.

In my work as a microbiologist I am increasingly seeing simple infections such as cystitis (urinary tract infection) which have become so resistant to antibiotics that only more specialised antibiotics can be used to treat them. These drugs can have very toxic side-effects to the kidneys or liver and need to be given intravenously.

These superbugs are smart, finding new ways to stay alive very rapidly when exposed to antibiotics that would have previously killed them.

We are now seeing bacteria in hospitals around the world that are resistant to all antibiotics and a new drug-resistant strain of tuberculosis is emerging globally and causing concern. It’s estimated that drug-resistant infections could kill an extra 10 million people across the world, each year, by 2050.

Patients infected with these superbugs have to stay in isolated side wards, will stay in hospital up to three times longer than other patients, and can be up to 50 per cent more likely to die from their infection.

The following is your ABC to avoid taking unnecessary antibiotics this winter:


Are antibiotics necessary? What can I do to feel better? Ask your community pharmacist if unsure.


Antibiotics do not kill viruses. They only work on bacteria.

Complete the course:

If you do get antibiotics, take them exactly as prescribed (even if you are feeling better). Do not keep any for later and never share them.

Remember, there is no point in taking antibiotics for:

:: Colds or flu

:: Most coughs and bronchitis

:: Most sore throats

:: Runny noses

:: Most ear aches


:: Almost 1.9 million antibiotic prescriptions were issued in Northern Ireland last year – that’s one every 16 seconds.

:: By 2050, there may be up to 10 million deaths globally due to antibiotic resistance at a cost of £66 trillion to the global economy, according to the Antimicrobial Resistance Review commissioned by the British government in 2014.

:: 25,000 – The number of people dying per year in Europe from antibiotic resistant infections right now exceeds deaths in traffic accidents.

:: 11 days – the length of time the average cold lasts.

:: Dr David Farren is a consultant and clinical lead medical microbiology / infection control doctor with Northern Health and Social Care Trust.


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