We are awash in germs. Bacteria, viruses, fungi and others are all organisms that want to invade our bodies and cause infection. But we have evolved a defense against this – our immune system. We also have the advantage of technology, including antibiotics, that we can use to help our immune system in this fight.
There are several antibiotic and germ myths. The big one is that antibiotics work against many different types of infections, including the cold. This is not the case: Antibiotics work only against bacteria. Another myth is that all antibiotics kill bacteria. In fact, most antibiotics are bacteriostatic: They only keep bacteria from reproducing, giving our immune systems time to do the killing themselves. Some antibiotics, however, are bacteriocidal, which means they directly kill bacteria.
It said that people can become resistant to antibiotics. In fact, people themselves do not become resistant to antibiotics; it’s the bacterial populations inside of our bodies that become resistant. The caution is not that you will become resistant, but that you can become a breeding ground for resistant species of bacteria. Another myth is that antibiotics weaken the immune system. This is not true. They do not have any effect on the immune system. The immune system, in most cases, still has to fight off the infection. Antibiotics just give the immune system a chance to do so. Some people believe that if an antibiotic has not worked in a specific individual previously, that antibiotic won’t work in the future. That is not necessarily true. The effectiveness of any particular antibiotic is specific to the infection – the strain and the species of bacteria – not the person.
One thing about antibiotics that is not a myth is that they should not be overused: Overuse of antibiotics increases resistance. Therefore, it is important to find alternatives to antibiotics. In other words, it’s important to find ways to minimize infections rather than relying on an
antibiotic whenever you need to. Some alternatives are true and effective. But there are a lot that are myths.
One common myth that is offered as an alternative to treating a bacterial infection with antibiotics is supplements or products that boost the immune system. If you are healthy, well-nourished, and not sick, your immune system will be functioning optimally. There is no way to boost it or increase its activity beyond its already optimal functioning. Only if there is something inhibiting or interfering with the activity of the immune system can you take steps to restore the immune system to its normal functional state.
One product that has been around for years as an alternative to antibiotics is called colloidal silver. This is actually the element silver, in a suspension that you are meant to drink. The claim is that silver has antibacterial activity. Silver is used externally to sterilize, for example, medical equipment – but it is not meant to be taken internally. One alternative, however, is genuine: honey. Honey, while not an antibiotic when taken internally, does have antiseptic properties when used externally. Studies show that using honey as an antiseptic in a wound works quite well – almost as well as pharmaceutical creams that are designed specifically for that purpose.
Hand washing is the single most effective behavior to prevent getting an infection, such as the cold, flu, or more serious bacterial infections. This is especially true if you are exposed to people who you know to be sick.
Health-care workers, for example, especially need to wash their hands.
What about antibacterial soaps? These are very common on the market these days.
What makes a soap antibacterial is that it contains a chemical, the most common one being triclosan, that has an antibacterial effect. But in 2007, a systematic review concluded that antibacterial soaps containing triclosan are not more effective than regular soap. However, there are some studies that show that it may be more effective if it is combined with other antibacterial agents. The jury is still out on whether we can develop an antibacterial soap that has advantages.
We do need to take reasonable measures to stay hygienic and free from infection. Knowing when to use an antibiotic is also very helpful, as is knowing when not to use an antibiotic. While basic hygiene is good, scientists are actually considering the possibility that our modern society may in fact be too hygienic for our own good. A little exposure to germs may not be a bad thing.