Experts are concerned about people not finishing their antibiotics and then giving them to someone else.
It’s a fairly common scenario.
Your doctor prescribes you antibiotics, telling you to take the full course of medication even after you’re feeling better.
But, when your symptoms are gone, you ignore your doctor’s instructions and stop taking your medicine.
You leave the rest in the medicine cabinet, ready to use the next time you’re not feeling well.
Or, worse yet, for when someone else is ill.
The collective medical community, especially those who track and treat bacteria stronger than the most powerful antibiotics available, would like you to stop.
New research scheduled to be presented Monday at the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) National Conference & Exhibition in Orlando, Florida, shows how common this type of medicine sharing is among parents.
Using responses to an anonymous online questionnaire of 496 parents, researchers at the Cohen Children’s Medical Center of New York reported that 48 percent of the parents surveyed said they’ve held onto leftover antibiotics.
More troubling to researchers was that of those parents, 73 percent reported giving those antibiotics to siblings, unrelated children, and unrelated adults.
This would sometimes occur months after the drugs were originally prescribed.
Dr. Ruth Milanaik, director of the neonatal neurodevelopment follow-up program at Cohen and senior author of the study, says the results show an “alarming” percentage of parents engaging in sharing or borrowing antibiotics, a practice known as prescription diversion.
“This is dangerous not only for those given antibiotics that weren’t prescribed for them, but for entire populations of people who some antibiotics may no longer help when the bacteria they target become resistant to them,” Milanaik said in a statement.
The threat of resistance
Antibiotics are most effective when used the least.
The overuse and misuse of them has led to the rise of antibiotic resistance, or bacteria that have evolved defenses around even our strongest antibiotics.
Calling antibiotic resistance “one of the biggest public health challenges of our time,” the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) estimates that each year at least 2 million people get an antibiotic-resistant infection — 23,000 of whom die — in the United States alone.
But parents giving their children antibiotics aren’t the leading driving factor in the rise of deadly bacteria.
Overall, it’s a mix of their use in humans and animals, as well as natural evolution.
While experts search for new ways to combat these threats, they are pressuring for continued judicious use of currently available antibiotics.
That includes only using them as prescribed.
“Although the discovery of antibiotics has revolutionized medicine, it is imperative that clinicians emphasize the importance of use and dispose of these medications properly to make sure they remain an effective tool against infectious diseases,” Milanaik said.
Who shares what
The Cohen survey found the most commonly diverted antibiotics were liquids and drops.
In addition, 16 percent of parents reported giving their children antibiotics meant for an adult.
Most parents followed the dosage on the packaging, although the recipient had changed.
One common reason parents gave for giving their children unused antibiotics was to avoid the costs of going to the doctor again, said Tamara Kahan, the abstract’s presenting author, in a statement accompanying the research.
Kahan says further research should examine the best way to convey to parents the risks associated with antibiotic diversion as well as pinpointing exactly how and why it is most likely to occur.
“Follow-up surveys could examine whether there is a correlation between lack of access to health insurance or primary care and antibiotic diversion,” she said.
Allan Coukell, senior director of drugs and medical devices at the Pew Charitable Trusts, wasn’t involved in the study but says generally people shouldn’t share antibiotics.
“The concern is that anytime we use an antibiotic is that it gives bacteria opportunities to develop resistance,” he told Healthline.
Besides resistance, antibiotics are not risk-free drugs, Coukell says.
That includes side effects and complications that put many people in the emergency room.
“We need to treat antibiotics with the seriousness of other prescription drugs,” he said.
The bottom line
Diversion is a major problem in abusing and misusing prescription medication, from opioid painkillers to antibiotics.
Like any medication, it’s best to follow your doctors’ instructions and take all of your medication as prescribed.
If, for whatever reason, you choose not to follow your full course of antibiotics, don’t give them to someone else.
The more times bacteria are exposed to levels of antibiotics that aren’t lethal enough to kill it are more opportunities it can have to evolve defenses around it.