Not all Bugs Need Drugs: Canada’s top Doc talks antibiotic resistance

Special Guest Post from the Chief Public Health Officer of Canada

Antibiotic resistant infections are one of our greatest global health threats.

If we do not take the right action now, by 2050 antibiotic-resistant infections could cause as many as 10 million deaths per year around the world. That is more than the number of cancer deaths we see today worldwide.

In Canada, an estimated 5,400 deaths, or close to 15 deaths each day, were due to antibiotic resistant infections in 2018.

We need to ensure that we can continue to rely on antibiotics now and in the future. Taking antibiotics when we don’t need them means that they will be less effective when they are needed.

What is antibiotic resistance?

When antibiotics are used to treat bacterial infections (such as strep throat and urinary tract infections), the bacteria can evolve to withstand and survive. When the antibiotic is no longer effective in killing the germ, this is known as antibiotic resistance.

These antibiotic-resistant bacteria, sometimes called superbugs, can cause infections that are harder to fight with existing treatments, which can lead to more frequent and longer hospital stays. These superbugs can also be passed on to other people.

What is the big problem with antibiotic resistance?

  • It results in the spread of drug resistant bacteria (superbugs) that cause infections that are extremely difficult to treat.
  • It could make many common medical procedures and treatments (such as C-sections, hip replacements and chemotherapy) more dangerous, because of the increased risk of potentially untreatable infections.

Why do we use antibiotics unnecessarily?

Antibiotics only work to treat bacterial infections. Often they are prescribed to treat viruses, such as colds and flu. When this happens, not only are these unnecessary antibiotics ineffective for treating viral infections (which means they won’t cure you or make you feel better), but the “good” bacteria in your body are killed by the antibiotic, giving more resistant strains a chance to multiply and spread.

Our society has come to view antibiotics as a magic bullet. So many people have been helped by antibiotics that many patients expect to receive them whenever they become ill, regardless of whether their illness is caused by bacteria.

What can you do?

As patients, here are some things we can all do to help prevent the problem of antibiotic resistance:

  • Keep your vaccinations up to date.

  • Protect yourself from infection.
    • Wash your hands before eating or preparing food, after using the washroom and after coughing or blowing your nose.
    • Stay home when you are sick.
    • Cough and sneeze into your arm, not your hands.
    • Maintain a healthy lifestyle, including a healthy diet and physical activity. This can help keep you well.
    • Follow safe food handling and cooking practices to help prevent foodborne illness.
    • Practice safe sex by using a condom.

  • Speak with a healthcare provider before using antibiotics. Here are three key questions you should ask them:
    • Do I really need antibiotics?
    • What are my options?
    • What are the risks of taking this medicine?

  • When you are prescribed antibiotics, use them strictly as directed.
    • Never take leftover antibiotics.
    • Never use someone else’s antibiotics.
    • Never share your antibiotics with someone else.

  • Recognize and accept that antibiotics are not always the answer. Antibiotics are not effective for common viral illnesses and you should follow your health care providers’ advice on treatments that do not involve antibiotics.

The Way Forward

We all have a role to play to keep antibiotics working. A world without antibiotics is not a world we would wish on our children or grandchildren. Together, we can take action to preserve the infection-fighting ability of antibiotics now and into the future.

Learn more

For more information on preserving antibiotics now and into the future, visit I also encourage you to read my spotlight report on antibiotic resistance. In this report, I also outline what healthcare providers or health system leaders can do to help keep antibiotics working.

Dr. Theresa Tam
Chief Public Health Officer of Canada
Twitter: @CPHO_Canada