In The Doctor Who Gave Up Drugs, a two-part BBC One documentary, Dr. Chris Van Tulleken explores ways to reduce the number of drugs prescribed to patients in the UK. He also looks at the topic of antibiotic resistance.

Here's what you need to know:

First things first… what are antibiotics and how do they work?

Antibiotics are used to treat and sometimes prevent bacterial infections. There are hundreds of different types but most can be classified into six groups, according to NHS Choices. Most of them, such as penicillin, work by destroying the cell walls of bacteria. Others stop bacteria from growing and multiplying.

Most bacteria do not live long, so the infecting bacteria will eventually die out once antibiotics start attacking them.

What’s antibiotic resistance?

a GP writing a prescription
(Anthony Devlin/PA)

 

Antibiotic resistance is when a strain of bacteria no longer responds to treatment with antibiotics.

Strains of bacteria can mutate and gradually become resistant to a specific antibiotic, and the chances of this happening increases if a person does not finish the course of antibiotics, as some bacteria may be left to develop resistance. This is why patients are always urged to take the full course of antibiotics, even if they feel better or they feel their symptoms have gone away.

[Related story: The Doctor Who Gave Up Drugs: 5 natural alternatives to prescription medication]

The problem is fuelled by unnecessary prescribing of the drugs.

It has also led to the emergence of superbugs – strains of bacteria that have developed resistance to many different types of antibiotics, such as MRSA (methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus) and C diff (Clostridium difficile), which are responsible for thousands of deaths.

What happens if we can no longer use antibiotics?

Sir Alexander Fleming, the man who discovered penicillin, with his wife Lady Fleming at London Airport on their way to Paris
Sir Alexander Fleming, the man who discovered penicillin (PA)

 

Antibiotics are used to treat infections, and if we can no longer treat infections with antibiotics then they’ll have to be treated surgically.

Professor Mark Baker, director of the Nice (National Institute for Health and Care Excellence) Centre for Clinical Practice, said: “If we don’t do it now then we’ll have to rethink the whole basis of medicine, because we’ve spent 60 years assuming that most infections will be cured by antibiotic drugs.

“If they no longer work, then we’ll have to rediscover and relearn how to treat infections surgically and I don’t think anyone wants to be in that position.

“So the situation I think has reached a greater degree of crisis than previous initiatives. It’s a more serious situation now we’ve gone another 15 years without any new classes of antibiotics being produced.”

So, how do we prevent this?

Prime Minister David Cameron who warned of antibiotic resistance last year
(Jonathan Brady/PA)

 

The latest guidance from Nice follows previous initiatives and advice from the Government.

In 2014, David Cameron warned that 25,000 people a year were dying from infections resistant to antibiotic drugs in Europe.

At the same time, Chief Medical Officer for England, Professor Dame Sally Davies, described antibiotic resistance as a “catastrophic threat” on a par with terrorism and climate change.