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Antibiotic resistance personified stands triumphantly over the pills it has defeated.

What is Antibiotic Resistance and How is it Harmful to People with CF?

Antibiotics are vital medicines for many people. They are drugs that fight infections caused by bacteria, by either killing the bacteria or making it harder for the bacteria to multiply and grow in the body.1 People with cystic fibrosis (CF) often take antibiotics often for various repeated infections, which brings up not only the question of antibiotic resistance, but also the fact that these antibiotics kill beneficial bacteria in the lungs, as well.2

What is antibiotic resistance?

Antibiotic resistance is when the bacteria are able to overpower the drugs that are supposed to kill them.1 When bacteria become that strong, the drugs are not able to be effective, leading to the bacteria continuing to multiply and spread. This is dangerous because this can lead to previously controlled illnesses becoming untreatable. This can lead to serious infections and dangerous illnesses that are harder to treat, more expensive to treat, and can even lead to significant disability or death.1

How does antibiotic resistance occur?

Antibiotic resistance happens when antibiotics are misused or overused. When a person takes an antibiotic, sensitive bacteria are able to be killed by the medication, but there are some resistant bacteria that remains that the drugs were not able to kill.1 Repeated use of those medications builds up the number of resistant bacteria and changes the way the bacteria respond to the antibiotics.

If a person has a virus and is improperly prescribed antibiotics, not only are antibiotics unable to kill viruses, but the bacteria become used to the medication and become resistant. This is why it’s important to use antibiotics sparingly, and only when necessary.

Antibiotics and CF

The thick buildup of mucus in the lungs that is a hallmark of CF makes people with CF more susceptible to infections, but antibiotics can help control these infections. People with CF often take them as part of their daily medication routine, and during periods of illness, sometimes even get antibiotics through a vein, in addition to their regular medications.3 This means that for those with CF, the bacteria in their bodies have been exposed to a large number of antibiotics, possibly increasing the risk of antibiotic resistance.

We all have a variety of bacteria in our lungs; not all of it is bad. When antibiotics are taken, they can also kill the harmless and good bacteria in the lungs, especially if large amounts or many different types of antibiotics are taken, as in CF. This decreases the diversity of the bacteria in the lungs, which is associated with CF disease progression.2

Antibiotic resistance and CF

A small study was done to see how antibiotic resistance affects the relationship between the diversity of lung bacteria and pulmonary function in people with CF. The researchers studied samples from 6 children with CF, during well visits and then after periods of infection, after courses of IV antibiotics, and for a period of time post-illness and antibiotics. Participants in the study who had the bacteria methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus, which is known to be hard to treat, or other antibiotic-resistant bacteria, had significantly lower bacterial diversity in their samples, as well as more aggressive CF.2 These participants were also more likely to have bacteria from the genus Alcaligenes, but it’s not yet known what this means for CF.2

The answer for those with CF isn’t to cut back on antibiotic usage, but to use medications in a more targeted, safer way, in order to lower the risk of antibiotic resistance. This will help to ensure that the antibiotics that are given retain their effectiveness. More research needs to be conducted to see how this can be done and to develop more focused ways to treat pulmonary exacerbations and infections in people with CF.

This article represents the opinions, thoughts, and experiences of the author; none of this content has been paid for by any advertiser. The team does not recommend or endorse any products or treatments discussed herein. Learn more about how we maintain editorial integrity here.

  1. Antibiotic Questions and Answers. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Published September 25, 2017. Accessed September 17, 2019.
  2. Children’s National Medical Center. Understanding Antibiotic Resistance in Patients with Cystic Fibrosis. Medical Xpress. Published September 26, 2018. Accessed September 17, 2019.
  3. Antibiotics. Cystic Fibrosis Foundation. n.d. Accessed September 17, 2019.