Why I’m anti antibiotics and how they saved my life
My parents were never inclined to rush me to the doctor at the drop of a hat or a rocket in temperature. I was seldom carted into my GP’s surgery for bad colds, hacking coughs, throbbing earache, food poisoning and the like. Except for glandular fever. Obviously.
My older sister could always be relied upon to infect me with the usual childhood diseases. I would develop a spot or two and call it a day. Which turned out to be a double-edged sword. I, like my more seriously stricken sibling, acquired enough immunity to never contract chicken pox again but, unlike her, I’ve contracted shingles twice.
My mother said we should thank our lucky stars for living in the antibiotics era. She spoke of neighbouring families that had been wiped out by childhood diseases in the ’20s and ’30s. She ensured we received every vaccine offered.
But back in the ’60s and ’70s, my family relied on home remedies for common ailments. I remember having warm oil trickled into a throbbing ear, sitting with a towel over my head while burrowing my face into a bowl of herbal steam in a bid to relieve blocked sinuses. And being bungled into bed wearing an old sheepskin jacket lining and told to sweat out a bad cold. We rubbed Vick ointment onto our chests and wrapped onion skins on childhood chilblains. Do kids even get chilblains these days? My children never did. But then again, neither did they walk a mile in the damp cold to get home from the bus stop after school.
These non-pharmaceutical methods worked to some extent. And that ‘some extent’ was good enough. Because even if these herbals steamers didn’t actually help with anything more than a psychological boost — which is not to be sniffed at — the symptoms did gradually fade and die. While I recovered and lived to tell the tale.
Now, for the record, and to avoid any do-gooder hammering on my mother’s front door and accusing her of child neglect, my parents made many an eye-rolling here-we-go-again run to the local A&E department with their accident-prone younger youngster. Seeking professional fixes for a broken foot, broken finger, deeply cut hand, fractured arm, torn ankle ligaments, glass embedded in hand etc. etc. You get the drift. I have a very vivid memory of sitting with my foot in plaster while a grumpy A&E nurse rootled in my fourteen-year-old hand for glass from the tip of a laboratory teat pipette, an injury acquired during a friendly lunch time water fight. (And no, I couldn’t remember what the pipette had been used for (me). So yes, I needed a tetanus jab (Dad). Grrr (me again).)
Once older and in charge of my own health, my reluctance to seek medical intervention continued. There were times when this was most definitely a bad strategy — such as battling a cold for the best part of two years before finally succumbing to my GP who checked me for allergies and declared me allergic to pet fur. My two-year-old dog and I were flabbergasted. We decided ’twas better to treat me for the allergy (which does not involve antibiotics) than find him another home. My current dog and two cats share that opinion. But hey, curling up with a fur baby does have its health values too. And nobody’s perfect.
But there have been times when antibiotics were the only answer: for pneumonia, lime disease by tick bite, a snake bite and, not least, puerperal fever after childbirth which, without antibiotics, is still a killer. And while this might appear to be quite a list, it adds up to reasonable over the course of my fifty years.
It was also around this time (’90s) that the medical industry was beginning to raise the alarm re. the limited lifespan of relying on antibiotics as a quick fix for just about everything. No doubt the medical industry had been trying to raise the alarm for many years by this point, but it was around about now that households began to sit up and take note.
We learned viruses were immune to antibiotics, and that many infections would simply work their way out of the body. Possibly later rather than sooner, but still.
Thanks to a sensible GP and a paranoid mother, my nineteen-year-old daughters can probably count the number of times they have been prescribed antibiotics on one hand. Between them. We all agree that, as far as possible, we should save the use of antibiotics for a rainy day.
And last month, I got soaked through to the skin.
A fourth hacking cough in as many months rendered me hanging breathless over the shopping trolley I was using as a walker to get around the supermarket. This was when I realised my health was well out of hand. That evening, a doctor prescribed penicillin and rest for pneumonia.
I learned a lot that night.
I learned that lying down and sitting up were both out of the question. I was too breathless for one and too exhausted for the other. I also learned that stiff, aching lungs are very painful and breathlessness is very frightening.
Lying in a recliner sofa at exactly the right angle to allow sufficient gasping, I knew my husband would drive me to the A&E in a heartbeat if I morphed into an emergency. I understood how older people living alone could quietly die.
And while wheezing in the wee small hours, I hoped and probably prayed that the penicillin would kick in and that my body had not developed resistance to antibiotics. Penicillin was my lifeline. What if it had already snapped?
Antibiotics in food is reason enough to choose organic options. How dare the meat industry ET AL dose me to death with the very substances that I may yet rely on to save my life?
Not on my watch. I shall be keeping a much closer eye on food labels and organic options. And shopping accordingly.
While thanking my lucky stars for a mother who taught me huge respect for preserving the benefits of antibiotics from an early age.