Venn guide to pills that kill things

The Venn guide to pills that kill thingsEach year around this time, health care professionals begin to complain that patients are demanding antibiotics indiscriminately and are contributing to the evolution of resistant bacteria.  I’m officially sick of this complaint.  Doctors have created this problem by using the word “antibiotic” instead of the more descriptive words “antibacterial” and “antiviral.” Because the word “antibiotic” (= “against life”) seems to refer to something that kills all life, it’s rather understandable that patients want the pills for everything.

So I humbly propose that the graphic at right be posted in all doctors’ offices around the country, partly to be seen by patients but more importantly to rewire doctors’ vocabularies, which were probably fused in early medical school.  In talking with MDs about this issue, they think my proposal is stupid; they assume everyone knows that they mean “antibacterial,” and they insist the term has historically referred to bacteria only.  My response is (1) most patients don’t understand what doctors truly mean, and (2) doctors are wrong about the historical meaning of the word “antibiotic”… it was initially coined to describe compounds that kill all sorts of beasties, not just bacteria (see Science Friday’s blurb on origin of the word).

Please download a PDF of the graphic if you’re on board and want to help.  If you can laminate it, all the better…laminated documents look so official, plus the surfaces are easier to keep sterile.  Graphic is also great for public school classrooms if you’re teaching kids about the different kinds of antibiotics. And if you happen to write articles or texts about pills that kill things, I think this would make for a snazzy graphic, though MDs will have conniptions (there are pills for that, though, so they’ll be fine).

If you want more information on the problem, read blurbs by Dan Rather, The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and The Alliance for Prudent Use of Antibiotics. It might take 30 years to effect the changes, but I think it’s worth trying.

Note: I realize that most pills kill other types of life to certain degree, so some of the pills in my graphic should be overlapping…like a true Venn diagram.  But it was too messy, so they are just simplified into subsets.  And I just love the similarity to “The Zen Guide to …”, and couldn’t resist.

6 thoughts on “Venn guide to pills that kill things

  1. Patrik D'haeseleer

    Some biologists might argue that since viruses aren’t considered “alive” (i.e. “biotic”), antivirals should be explicitly excluded from the antibiotics set.

    Those biologists are wankers.

    1. Colin Purrington Post author

      I agree, they’ll be upset. But those biologists probably have a few microbiology textbooks on their shelves, and they typically contain chapters on viruses. Younger biologists don’t seem to be as uptight about including viruses as alive, or at least they are understanding of the lameness of the distinction, especially when you’re infected by them.

  2. Andy

    I mean, patients aren’t looking at the word “antibiotic” and making a conscious decision about their viral infection; that is, patient Doe with his flu isn’t thinking, “I believe viruses are a form of life, so therefore an antibiotic is the cure!” It’s simply “antibiotics made me get well really quickly that time I had Strep, so I want them now that I feel miserable.” Clinicians should be careful in their lingo, sure, but the broad-blanketing coverage of the term “antibiotic” isn’t the reason people demand it.

  3. Jerry

    Definition of antibiotic available to ‘the man in the street’
    This from the OED Online especially see Florey 1949.

    a. An antibiotic substance: one of a class of substances produced by living organisms and capable of destroying or inhibiting the growth of micro-organisms; spec. any of these substances used for therapeutic purposes. Also used of synthetic organic compounds having similar properties.
    1944 Lancet 18 Mar. 375/2 (title) The Mould Antibiotics.
    1949 H. W. Florey et al. Antibiotics II. xlvii. 1438 The antibiotics comprise substances with diverse chemical structures and biological activities. They range in their action from those which inhibit the growth of certain strains of bacteria in a highly selective manner to those which are relatively toxic to all living cells.
    1958 Listener 16 Oct. 620/1 The discovery of ‘interferon’, a sort of virus antibiotic.


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