Not to be melodramatic, but I’m fairly certain I’m allergic to breathing. My nose is constantly runny, my head always congested. I’m also pretty sure I have weird-shaped sinuses (technical term), so while a normal person can blow their nose and life is good again, all those allergens get caught in the spaces in my head and cause major problems. Recently I experienced those major problems to the extent where the doctor decided to prescribe me antibiotics. (And 3 different allergy medications, and appointments to 2 other doctors). I imagine most everyone reading this has been on antibiotics at some point, and you’re aware of just how helpful they can be when you’re feeling under the weather, but I was curious as to exactly how they worked so I did some research (as I do).
Antibiotics are a class of drug used to treat bacterial infections. That is, diseases caused by bacteria as opposed to viruses, like the flu. Briefly, bacteria are single-celled, living organisms that can live in plants, soil, animals, and us. Some are helpful to their host, some are harmful. A virus, on the other hand, is kind of an acellular (“a-cellular,” meaning it doesn’t have a cell structure) organism that scientists still aren’t sure if qualify for living or nonliving things. Weird, right?
Bacteria cause illnesses like strep throat, salmonella, gonorrhea, and the plague. Yup, that plague. Luckily something you don’t really have to worry about so much anymore. Unless you’re a squirrel in California. Viruses, on the other hand, are responsible for the common cold, the flu, and HIV/AIDS.
“One sometimes finds what one is not looking for”
–Sir Alexander Fleming
Modern antibiotics weren’t really discovered until the 1920s, which in the grand scheme of things wasn’t actually that long ago. What’s more, in true scientific fashion, they were discovered by accident. Sir Alexander Fleming, a Scottish scientist, found that a microorganism from the fungus Penicillium notatum he had left in a petri dish over the weekend had killed off the staphylococcus bacteria that were growing there. He called this “penicillin” and the era of modern antibiotics was born. Since then, several different types of antibiotics have been discovered. Which is great for me, because as it turns out I’m allergic to penicillin.
Side note, a lot of cool things have come from scientific accidents. In the science world, we call this “serendipity,” not “an accident,” probably to trick people into thinking we had a little more control over things than we actually did.
But before antibiotics, there pretty much weren’t any treatments for bacterial infections, apart from cutting off the offending body part. Not super helpful when you have strep throat. The only other option was to wait it out, which as often as not was fatal. I’m sure almost all of you have taken an antibiotic at least once in your life, and it probably helped you substantially (i.e., you’re not dead right now). But how do these wonder drugs work?
The key to these drugs is what kind of bacteria they’re fighting. Bacteria can be divided into two main categories based on the type of cell walls they have. There’s Gram-positive bacteria with thin walls, like those that cause pneumonia, and then there’s Gram-negative bacteria with thick walls, such as E. Coli.
Most antibiotics have been designed to be able to tackle either kind of bacteria, but penicillin is an example of an antibiotic that targets specifically the Gram-positive bacteria. It works by tearing down their walls, Mr. Gorbachev, and preventing them from building more. Without walls there’s nothing to hold the bacterium’s guts in place, and it dies, just like the poor little dog in that traumatizing scene from Where the Red Fern Grows.
Other kinds of antibiotics work by disrupting the DNA replication process. If the bacteria can’t replicate their DNA this means they can’t reproduce, and eventually they all die off. Here’s the point where I should mention to you antibiotic resistance. More and more often bacteria are becoming immune to the antibiotics we’ve developed. I’ll explain why that’s happening here, but I also definitely think you should check out this super cute Pin I found that describes it better and funnier.
Basically, it takes time to kill off all the bacteria. If you stop taking your antibiotics before they’re all dead, you leave a few stragglers behind, and these stragglers end up being immune to antibiotics. Then they go & have little bacteria children, who go on to have little bacteria children, who go on to have little bacteria children, etc., who are all also immune to antibiotics. Bad news bears for us.
Here’s some more bad news bears for you. Antibiotics kill all the bacteria. (“Wait, how is that bad?” you say). So actually a lot of the bacteria we have hanging out in our bodies is actually helpful and/or not harmful. This is particularly true in our mouths and our guts. When we take antibiotics, these helpful little guys die too. This can lead to stomach aches and general GI discomfort. These colonies of bacteria are part of our “microbiome,” and every single person has a completely unique one, depending on our genes and our environment (including what we eat). Some antibiotics can even wipe out these colonies for up to a year(!)
“How do we restore our microbiomes?” you cry! Well, you’ll just have to read my next post to find out 😏
(PS Just because there are side effects, you shouldn’t let this deter you from taking antibiotics if you need them; it’s better to have a little stomach discomfort than to be seriously ill!)