Superbugs Are Thriving: Do You Know How to Protect Yourself?

Dyed a lovely blue and seen through a microscope, staph bacteria look like clusters of grapes. Though capable of causing serious illness, staph is also carried harmlessly by one in three of us.

But this isn’t your commonplace staph. It’s an evil twin that packs a zombie-like appetite and an out-of-this world ability to cheat death.

We have all heard of superbugs by now – bacteria that antibiotics cannot kill. Methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureu, or MRSA, is just one type of superbug. There are many more. The rise of superbugs, the result of years of overuse of antibiotics, poses a real threat as more and more superbug-related disease outbreaks grab news headlines.

A crash course in bacteria biology

We’re all swimming in bacteria. Mostly, they lead quiet lives on our skin, in our noses and on computer keyboards. In fact, says Dr. Ramanan Laxminarayan, director, Center for Disease Dynamics, Economics & Policy, we have more bacteria on our bodies than we do human cells.

Usually, those bacteria cells are harmless, but not always. Think sinusitis and tuberculosis. Antibiotics have been doctors’ greatest weapon and bacteria’s greatest foes. Strong drugs such as penicillin and amoxicillin help patients fight most bacterial illnesses.

But antibiotic use comes with a cost. And that cost is superbugs. “Every time we use antibiotics, we kill off bacteria that respond to antibiotics. But some bacteria know how to evade them,” says Dr. Laxminarayan.

Over time, the bacteria that survive antibiotics reproduce and pass along their wily ways to their children. “That makes them harder to treat and makes our options fewer,” he adds. The big worry, say doctors, is that eventually there won’t be any viable options. Or that older, sicker patients may die before the one antibiotic that works for them is identified.

“Every bacterial species since the antibiotic era began has become more resistant. But generally we’ve always had something else to treat them,” says Dr. Barbara Murray, division director, professor, infectious disease, McGovern Medical School at the University of Texas Health Science Center in Houston, and past president of the Infectious Diseases Society of America. “What’s happening now is we don’t have much else for treatment and that’s a crisis when there’s nothing beyond that point.”

Where are the superbugs?

Many superbug infections start with a visit to the hospital. It can happen when a surgery patient, already vulnerable to infection, picks up a superbug on, say, a bed rail. “There are huge efforts to prevent the spread in hospitals, including UV irradiation of rooms when patients are discharged,” says Dr. Murray. Thankfully, hospitals are winning the war. Hospital acquired MRSA infections fell 54 percent between 2005 and 2011.

Enlisting in the war

We all have a role to play in the war on superbugs. One of the best ways to slow their rise is to reduce the need for antibiotics by avoiding mild infections. That means rigorous hand washing throughout the day, especially after using the bathroom and when working with raw meat.

And if you do fall ill, don’t ask your doctor to prescribe an antibiotic “just because.” Often, simpler treatments – or no treatment at all – are just as effective. Heed your doctor’s advice when he or she assures you that there’s no need for an antibiotic prescription for you or your child.

“A lot of doctors write a prescription because they think the patient is expecting it,” says Dr. Laxminarayan. “Be clear with them that you don’t need it unless the doctor thinks you need one – it makes a big difference.”

Do This
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Check out our related post: All About Flu Shots: Myths, Facts and Why You Should Get One.





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