Taking Unnecessary Antibiotics Can Hurt Us All

With anthrax threats now surfacing daily, the drug Cipro is in demand. Cipro is the antibiotic most commonly used to fight anthrax, and now people who haven't even been exposed are asking for it. But medical experts say taking the antibiotic when it isn't needed can be dangerous.

Not since the days of Legionnaire's Disease in Philadelphia has such a tiny bacterium caused such an immense scare. Pharmacies have been deluged with prescriptions for antibiotics, written by doctors who have been bombarded by patients demanding the drugs -- especially, Cipro, a very expensive antibiotic.

Alan Schuner has dozens of prescriptions he only partly filled on Friday to make sure everyone got enough to get started.

"I have three major wholesalers and most of them were out of it on Friday," Schuner said. "But as you can probably see, we got tons of Cipro that just came in this morning and we are expecting a big shipment later on of $15,000 to $20,000 of Cipro just coming in today."

But experts who have actually worked with anthrax say very, very few people should actually be taking antibiotics for possible anthrax exposure.

Dr Martin Blaser works at New York University's Medical Center, and says "the people who are at risk are the people who were in the room when the letter was opened, those are the people who are at maximum risk, and as you proceed outward from there, the risk diminishes drastically, so someone who was in the next room, their risk was practically zero."

All antibiotics have potential side effects, including allergic reactions, yeast infections and over-growth of non-susceptible bacteria. Cipro could potentially have those as well as these: abdominal pain, nausea or vomiting, diarrhea dizziness, headache, lightheadedness and trouble sleeping .

Other rare side effects can include agitation, confusion, hallucinations, fever, shortness of breath, skin rash, joint pain, tendonitis and even kidney and liver damage.

Even more frightening is the fact that, in the long run, the likelihood that widespread taking of antibiotics "just in case" will lead to antibiotic resistant germs.

"The number of lives that would be lost to that would be many times greater than the number of lives involved in a bioterrorist attacks," said Blaser.

Many experts say antibiotic resistant strains of bacteria are the most serious emerging crises in medicine. As Dr Blaser put it, if you weren't in the immediate area of the initial exposure, you've got a better chance of being struck by lightning that getting anthrax.

Online Producer: Michael Dever