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Sick of Getting Sick? Embrace Your Inner Bacteria!

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Sick of Getting Sick? Embrace Your Inner Bacteria!

Your Health

Sick of Getting Sick? Embrace Your Inner Bacteria!

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RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

No one has time to be sick anymore, not even for a fiercely raw throat or a nasty sinus infection. But will an antibiotic help or hurt?

According to science writer Deborah Franklin, the answer depends on how your garden grows.

Ms. DEBORAH FRANKLIN (Science Writer, San Francisco): You heard right: a garden. And when it's blooming beautifully, you don't want to tamper with it.

Imagine your body not as a battlefield for germs, but as a lush, tropical rainforest filled with maybe a quadrillion thriving plants, or in this case, bacteria.

(Soundbite of birds chirping)

FRANKLIN: There are more than 300 species of bacteria in your gut alone.

(Soundbite of monkey screaming)

FRANKLIN: Don't worry! It's a gorgeous garden of hard workers. Over there, one type of bacteria has settled into a tidy corner of your intestine, and it's helping to synthesize vitamin K from last night's dinner. That's an important blood clotting substance. And without the help of a neighboring microbe, the broccoli you downed would be no more digestible…

(Soundbite of tree falling)

FRANKLIN: …than a fallen log. Right this minute in the moist, warm grottoes throughout your body, encounters with friendly bacteria are teaching your immune cells how to recognize dangerous invaders.

The ability to distinguish friend from foe is crucial to keeping you healthy, and by acting as a thick groundcover, these benign bacteria crowd out truly noxious germs - salmonella, say, or dangerous versions of E-coli.

Bottom line: a lot of potentially harmful bacteria pass through you every day, but most never get a chance to dig in and make you sick. That's how things grow when conditions are right. But sometimes the balance is upset, making it easier for the infection to take root and overwhelm you.

(Soundbite of tree falling)

FRANKLIN: Sometimes the right antibiotic can save your life. But taking them willy-nilly against colds or not taking all the pills threatens our community garden. Think of insects that develop resistance to heavily used pesticides. When the weakest bugs are knocked out, the strongest ones can multiply, passing along genes to offspring and neighboring microbes that enable them to escape antibiotics too.

So the next time you're tempted to beg for a prescription for antibiotics, remember, some useful bacteria will be killed along with the bad, leaving vacant patches that can invite colonization by any passing germ. Think crabgrass, or kudzu.

(Soundbite of tree falling)

FRANKLIN: And even if that's not a problem for a basically healthy you, the antibiotic resistant bacteria that you might spread in a cough or a kiss could be trouble for your infant, your friend getting chemo, or anybody with an immune system that's been suppressed by age or illness. If your doctor tells you that antibiotics won't help, don't beg. Stay home and try to keep your germs to yourself.

Tell anyone who complains about your taking time off that you are tending the community garden for the sake of their health as well as your own.

(Soundbite of music)

MONTAGNE: Deborah Franklin writes about health and science from San Francisco.

There's more on when and when not to use antibiotics at npr.org. There, you'll also find answers to some of your questions about the risks and rewards of weight-loss surgery, which we featured last week in our health segment.

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