When phlegm invades Andy Shecktor’s face or chest, he says he knows if the culprit is a bacterial infection.
“You can taste them,” he says. “I get a sinus infection that requires antibiotics and a doc at least once a year.”
But on these occasions, Shecktor, a 63-year-old man from Berwick, Pennsylvania, doesn’t go see a doctor, and he doesn’t get a prescription for antibiotics.
Instead, he pulls out a stash of medicine from his fridge that is clearly marked — not for human consumption. It's for fish.
“The penicillin used for fish and that sort of thing are actually the exact same pills [as antibiotics for humans],” Shecktor says.
So, he figures, if he has a bacterial infection, why not just take these instead of going through a doctor?
There are lots of reasons you shouldn't, medical professionals and researchers say. For one, medications are often formulated specifically for certain animals — though not always — and may not work in humans or even in other animal species, says Claire Fellman, a veterinary pharmacologist at Tufts University. Plus, she says, “There can be dangerous contaminants. And misuse of antibiotics or other medications can result in serious illness or breed resistance.”
Concerns about safety haven’t stopped people like Shecktor, who find acquiring antibiotics through conventional means — a doctor’s visit and a prescription — too troublesome.
“It’s not so much the cost as the availability,” Shecktor says. “It’s just the way the medical industry is these days. It’s just tough to get the care you need. It’s tough to get the medications you need. It’s tough to even see a doctor.”
About 15 years ago, Shecktor says doctors in his area began tightening their use of antibiotics in an effort to curb the growth of bacteria that no longer respond to most antibiotic treatment. Shecktor says he knows that's important — antibiotic resistance costs more than 35,000 Americans their lives each year, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Still, he hated the change.
“I get sick. I know that it’s a bacterial infection. The doctors know it. But they’re not [prescribing] the medications. It became frustrating,” he says. “Then I got deathly ill. I had bronchitis and a sinus infection, and it was absolutely terrible.”
Shecktor went to the doctor’s office, but he says they wouldn’t prescribe him antibiotics. They told to come back the following week if he was still sick, but Shecktor wasn’t going to wait that long.
At home, Shecktor already had bottles of penicillin. They were for his pets. He and his wife care for a “persnickety” aging feline named Muffy or — sometimes — Stuffy Tiger.
“That’s what she looks like,” he says.
They also have a large rabbit named Cinnabon, two guinea pigs, and they used to have a fish. The antibiotics were originally for the fish, but Shecktor used them on the guinea pigs once when they got sick, too.
Then, hacking with a chest infection, he took them himself. Shecktor says he did research online about how to use them, and they worked. He was better in a day. Now, he keeps fish antibiotics in his fridge all the time. He says he uses them about once a year.
“I’ve had great success with it actually,” he says.
Shecktor doesn’t believe personal use of antibiotics is a significant factor in the growth of antibiotic resistance. Instead, he blames the mass use of antibiotics in agriculture for that problem.
“It’s big agriculture, you know, cramming too many chickens, jamming in your pigs and your cows into small spaces then feeding them antibiotics," he says."Nine million, billion times as much of this same medication is being given to cows and other farm animals every day,” he says. “That’s the problem.”
It's hard to know for certain how many people take antibiotics made for animals, but in this part of rural Pennsylvania, Shecktor says there are plenty of residents who would rather use cheap, easy-to-obtain veterinary medications than go to a physician.
“A lot of people, especially in the poorest sections and on the farms, have been using [veterinary medications] for a long time,” he says.
They’re not the only ones. In 2002, three Army doctors wrote to the New England Journal of Medicine about soldiers taking veterinary antibiotics. They described one serviceman who recounted his purchase of antibiotics from the fish aisle of a local pet store.
“He went on to explain that this over-the-counter source of antibiotics is common knowledge among all branches of the American Special Forces,” they wrote.
“I have to admit that I, too, have used veterinary drugs on myself in the past,” says Sam Telford, an infectious disease researcher at Tufts University. “I didn’t go to the doctor because it’s a pain.”
Telford emphasizes that this is a bad idea, and he doesn't think anyone -- including himself — should be doing it.
“This is one of those 'do as I say, not as I do things,'" Telford says. "Indiscriminate use of antibiotics not under the supervision of a physician is a threat."
Telford says he’s only used animal doxycycline, a strong antibiotic, because he knows that this antibiotic is the same in both veterinary and human medicine (“It’s the same factory that makes the stuff,” he says). Plus, Telford says, he knows how to properly use doxycycline, which he takes to avoid Lyme disease.
“I get bitten by ticks a lot. When I get bitten for more than 24 hours, I take a doxycycline,” he says. “And this isn’t unique among my colleagues either.”
But incorrect use of antibiotics can lead to undesirable outcomes, Fellman — the veterinary pharmacologist — warns. For example, it might pave the way for antibiotic resistant super-bacteria to colonize your body.
“[People] could definitely breed resistance in themselves,” she says.
Veterinary drugs are not always approved by the Food and Drug Administration, either. While the federal agency does regulate prescription drugs like the animal doxycycline Telford has used, over-the-counter animal medications — like the fish antibiotics Shecktor uses -- are not checked by the FDA for safety or efficacy.
“This seems very concerning that the products [people are using] have not been tested for purity or safety," Fellman says. "Any recalls that the FDA undergoes won’t apply. They’re not policing any of these products. There could be dangerous contaminants that you would never know."
And veterinary medications might not always work on humans, Fellman points out, even those who know the correct dosage to take. Drugs, or the pill formulation containing the drug, can be tailored to the specific biology of a species.
“There are animal formulations, there are human formulations, and they are tested in those species,” Fellman says. “What works for a dog might not work for a human.”
This segment aired on November 26, 2019.