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Infectious Diseases

Before Antibiotics?

04/08/2003

Question:

What did people do when they got sinus infections, urinary infections, ear infections, etc. before there were antibiotics? Did they have it for the rest of their life? Did they die from it? Just wondering.

Answer:

Before antibiotics (up to World War II), people with bacterial infections most often recovered on their own, although some developed more severe infections and died. Rarely, they had the infection for the rest of their life, but most often they recovered or died. The location of the infection, the virulence of the bacteria, and the strength of the person`s natural defense mechanisms determined the outcome. For example, before antibiotics were available, 40% of people with bacterial pneumonia (bacterial infection of the lung) died and 60% survived. Nowadays, about 5-10% die, and the remainder survive. However, an older person with underlying disease is more likely to die than a young person who is otherwise healthy. Many infections are not caused by bacteria, of course, and they are not influenced by antibiotics.

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Response by:

Peter T Frame, MD Peter T Frame, MD
Emeritus Professor of Clinical Medicine
College of Medicine
University of Cincinnati