Antibiotics are overused in many countries, including the U.S., in part because patients insist on them even when they have an illness, such as a viral illness, that can't be helped by antibiotics. Doctors sometimes justify this to themselves as a "prophylactic," a way to prevent an opportunistic bacterial infection, but infectious disease experts suggest that's often questionable.
Another problem is the widespread routine use of antibiotics in animal feed. This isn't being done to treat or even to prevent disease but rather as a way to speed animal growth an reduce time to market, which for obvious reasons increases profits. It does appear to work, though it's not clear how. Farmers also usually pay far less for antibiotics than human patients do.
This is a problem because the more antibiotics are used, the more antibiotic bacteria develop, which means that if you contract a bacterial infection, it's more and more likely antibiotics won't help you.
Three things people can do to help are
Ask doctors if they really need an antibiotic prescription. I'm glad to say that public health officials here in North Carolina have been running public service announcements on television to encourage people to do this. (Away from our governor's office and legislature, our state government still has pockets of relative sanity.)
If you do take an antibiotic, be sure to take the full prescription even after you start feeling better. That's both to ensure you don't have a relapse and to reduce the likelihood that you'll develop resistant strains of the bacteria in question.
When you buy meat or dairy products, do your best to avoid any treated with antibiotics. More and more often meat that hasn't been treated is so labeled.
Here's the latest episode of Health Care Triage on the same subject: