Here's What Most People Get Wrong About Antibiotics

Photographed by Jessica Nash.
Just because we use certain prescription drugs a lot doesn't mean we know that much about them: According to a new global survey from the World Health Organization (WHO), most people are still getting some common — and important — facts about antibiotics wrong.

The study, published today, surveyed people in 12 countries around the world about common topics related to antibiotics. The 9,772 participants were from China, Egypt, Barbados, Nigeria, Indonesia, Mexico, India, Vietnam, South Africa, Sudan, Russia, and Serbia.

Results showed that a staggering amount of people still believe some of the most common (and potentially harmful) misconceptions about antibiotics. For instance, more than three-quarters of respondents said they thought antibiotic resistance referred to the body becoming resistant to antibiotics. But in this case it's actually the bacteria that are becoming resistant.

A quarter of respondents thought it was okay to use antibiotics that were originally prescribed to a friend or family member, as long as it was to treat the same illness (always check with your doctor whenever you think you might need antibiotics). And 64% incorrectly responded that it was appropriate to use antibiotics for a viral illness, like the cold or flu.

Understanding how antibiotics work isn't just going to make you a more knowledgeable consumer; it can also help curb the rising issue of antibiotic resistance. Our bad habits of using antibiotics when we don't need them (like when we have a viral cold) or more often than we need to (like in our livestock) has created bacteria that no longer respond to many of our first-choice antibiotics.

That forces doctors to use our more heavy-duty options, which often result in more expensive hospital stays with more serious side effects. Or people may simply be left without options for treating their illnesses.

The U.S. does somewhat better than the countries in the WHO survey; in a 2012 Pew survey of Americans, almost 90% correctly identified the bacterial infections these drugs can treat. But there's still plenty of room for all of us to learn. For instance, 36% of those Pew participants still believed antibiotics can treat diseases caused by viruses. On that note, let's all get learnin'.

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