It's tough to know exactly what factors contributed to the regional variations the research team found in antibiotic prescription rates, said study author Lauri Hicks, medical director of the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
"Why is West Virginia more than double compared to Alaska?
I imagine there are provider factors, patient factors and cultural factors that are all shaping the impact," Hicks
Some patients may pressure physicians to give them what they perceive as a "quick fix" so they can get back to work sooner or return their sick child to day care, Hicks
Unfortunately, that contributes to the growing problem of antibiotic resistance, she
"We should be thinking of antibiotics not as a magic bullet, but as a precious resource that we should only use when absolutely necessary," she
The trends are troubling, Hicks
said, as the war against bacterial infections is getting harder to fight.
Increased antibiotic usage is associated with growing resistance to the drugs, she
"When people think about antibiotic resistance, they think it's their body being resistant," Hicks
"They don't realize that the actual number of microbes or bacterial cells in the body outnumber the human [cells]."
The bacteria are changing so rapidly -- some replicate every 40 minutes -- that they continually evolve, making them better able to resist antibiotics to which they've been exposed, Hicks
That leaves an increasing number of people virtually defenseless against infections that once were relatively easy to resolve.
And scientists estimate that 50 percent of prescriptions for antibiotics may be unnecessary.
"There are infections out there that have become almost impossible to treat," Hicks
"We really are on the verge of going down a path where there may be nothing that works.
Now we're seeing young, healthy people getting these highly resistant infections requiring hospitalization where in the past a simple oral antibiotic would have taken care of it."
The CDC is trying to help solve the problem of antibiotic drug resistance by increasing public awareness and educating physicians about the most effective way to prescribe antibiotics, said Hicks, who is director of the agency's Get Smart: Know When Antibiotics Work program.
In the latest research, the scientists tapped into a database that included more than 70 percent of the nation's prescriptions in 2010.
Drawing from prescriptions and census information, they calculated prescribing rates for outpatient oral antibiotics.
"The database is like a [national] census of antibiotic use," and the information was obtained from all pharmacies and drug makers nationwide, Hicks
Many people think antibiotics are harmless, but side effects and allergies to the medications are actually one of the most common reasons people go to the emergency room, she
"You can get anything ranging from an itchy rash to diarrhea, a torn Achilles tendon from taking a fluoroquinolone like Bactrim, an anaphylactic reaction (an immune system reaction that causes shock) or toxic epidermal necrolysis (a life-threatening skin condition)," Hicks