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Antibiotics: Understanding the many classes of antimicrobial drugs

Antibiotics changed the face of modern medicine. In fact, the discovery of antimicrobial drugs was one of the most significant achievements of the 20th century. Since they became widely available in the 1940s, millions of lives have been saved. Long-dreaded diseases like bacterial meningitis, which once killed 90 percent of children infected, are now curable.

The term “antibiotic” means “against life.” Life, in this case, means germs or microbes. In a broad sense, an antibiotic is a drug that is antibacterial, antiviral, antifungal or anti-parasitic. But in most cases, the term “antibiotic” is used to describe a drug that works against bacteria. Most antibiotics do not work against infections caused by viruses, such as the common cold, funguses or parasites.

There is a growing problem today due to our overuse of these wonder drugs. Antibiotics have been overprescribed and misused. Unfortunately, it turns out that bacteria can be quite resourceful. Many have found ways to mutate and are now resistant to available antibiotics. That means that the next time you really need an antibiotic to fight an infection, it might not work.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, antibiotic resistance is one of the world’s most pressing health problems. Antibiotic overuse not only leads to growth of antibiotic-resistant bacteria, but it also can kill off the body’s good bacteria, which help digest food and fight off infection.

A recent Wall Street Journal article, “Antibiotics Do’s and Don’ts” (Aug. 20), focused on the overprescription of broad-spectrum antibiotics. Broad-spectrum antibiotics kill a wide range of bacteria and are convenient for doctors to prescribe when the exact pathogen causing the infection is unknown and patients want a quick fix. Among the most popular broad-spectrum antibiotics cited are ciprofloxacin (brand name Cipro) and azithromycin (Z-Pak).

Patients are encouraged to learn as much about prescribed antibiotics as possible and to take them as directed. Both doctors and pharmacists are good people to ask if you would like to know why you are receiving a particular drug, what sort of side effects to expect and how best to take the medication. The Stanford Health Library is also available as a resource, both in the library and online.

New to the library shelves is “Antibiotics Simplified” (Jones & Bartlett Learning, 2014). In its third edition, the book is written for students – medical, nursing or pharmacy – who need to understand the many different classes of antimicrobial drugs. This reference book is also a great tool for laypersons who simply want to understand more about the medications they have been prescribed.

Facts are condensed into standard categories, so it is easy to get the information you need. Each drug chapter follows the same basic format and includes: mechanism of action; spectrum (the bacteria the drug attacks); adverse effects; dosing; what they are good for; important facts; and a final section, “Don’t Forget,” that includes facts that may be especially important for that particular drug.

In addition to drug information, authors Jason C. Gallagher and Conan MacDougall set the stage for readers by including information about basic microbiology and treatment approaches to infectious diseases.

Another selection, “Contagious Diseases Sourcebook” (Omnigraphics, 2010), uses easy-to-understand language. It provides basic consumer health information, from trustworthy sources, such as the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases. The section explaining microbes and how they cause infection is especially good. Also noteworthy is a section on self-care of infections, which informs readers about when an infection is best treated by a medical professional and when it can be treated at home.

Children are frequent consumers of antibiotics. Parents are naturally worried when their children become ill. When it is 2 a.m. and your child is screaming with an earache, it may seem as though an antibiotic is needed. It can be hard to understand when a doctor may be unwilling to prescribe one.

There are a number of books written for parents to help them learn how to prevent and treat disease in children. One that does a good job of explaining when an antibiotic is and isn’t a good idea is “Keeping Your Child Healthy in a Germ-Filled World: A Guide for Parents” (Johns Hopkins Press, 2011). Author Athena P. Kourtis, M.D., focuses on the myriad ways that humans and germs interact in different situations, from school to home and away. With a focus on prevention, this book includes helpful information about treatment, including a chapter on the use and misuse of antibiotics.

The main branch of Stanford Health Library is located at Hoover Pavilion, 211 Quarry Road, Suite 201. Other branches are located on the first floor of Stanford Hospital and the main level of Stanford’s Cancer Center.

Nancy Dickenson is head librarian at Stanford Health Library. For more information, visit healthlibrary.stanford.edu.

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