Superbugs – What is a Superbug?

‘Superbug’ is a term used to describe an infection caused by bacteria that are resistant to multiple antibiotics. According to the Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), each year in the United States, 2 million people are infected with a superbug, and approximately 23,000 people die. Medicine today relies heavily on the use of antibiotics to prevent and treat an infection. When an infection cannot be treated with antibiotics, it poses a deadly threat to all those exposed to it. What do you need to know about superbugs to stay healthy?

What are superbugs?

‘Superbug’ is a colloquial term that refers to dangerous bacteria that has mutated to resist the medications that normally treat it. A superbug does not come from one specific type of bacteria; rather, it refers to any bacteria that are resistant to multiple antibiotics. Superbugs are also called drug-resistant or antibiotic-resistant.

How are superbugs made?

Bacteria are living organisms that multiply and want to survive. When a drug is used to kill them off, sometimes a select few survive. The “stronger” bacteria then multiply, increasing the amount of drug-resistant microbes. Misuse of antibiotics, such as not finishing a course of prescribed antibiotics or taking antibiotics when they are not needed, is the “single leading factor” of the superbug problem. When a course of antibiotics is not complete, the stronger remaining microbes multiply. Eventually, there will be no medication to treat them.

What are the most common superbugs?

Methicillin-Resistant Staphylococcus Aureus (MRSA): Regarded as the ‘hospital bug,’ many people contract this superbug in a healthcare facility. This infection starts as a skin infection but can lead to pneumonia or bloodstream infection. The bacteria can easily spread through skin contact, especially if you have a cut or crack in the skin. Once it was discovered that this bug is frequently spread to patients in hospitals, extra care was taken to contain them in the room of the patient already infected.   Carbapenem-Resistant Enterobacteriaceae (CRE): This is a family of bacteria normally found in your gut that can cause deadly blood infections that are resistant to all antibiotics. Healthy people do not usually get CRE infections—they are a threat to patients in hospitals or other healthcare settings that require devices such as a ventilator or catheter or are on long courses of certain antibiotics. Neisseria gonorrhoeae: This kind of bacteria causes STD gonorrhea which previously has been treated with antibiotics. Recently, however, it is becoming more resistant to them. Gonorrhea can lead to infertility, and it also increases the risk for HIV and other STDs.   Multidrug-Resistant Acinetobacter: Acinetobacter baumannii is the strain of bacteria that is resistant to most microbial agents. In recent years, it has emerged as a leading cause of healthcare-related infection. This bacterium can cause infections such as bacteremia, pneumonia, meningitis, and urinary tract.   Clostridium Difficile (C.diff): This type of bacteria lives in your intestines. Certain agents can cause it to overgrow, leading to severe diarrhea. When a person is given antibiotics to treat it, the drugs kill off all of the good bacteria in your gut, allowing C.diff to take over. This type of infection can be fatal.

Who is at risk?

Patients in hospitals or healthcare facilities are at greater risk of being infected with a superbug than healthy people. A compromised immune system is another factor that can lead to infection. People who have unprotected sex are at risk of contracting STDs that are becoming more and more resistant to antibiotics. Healthcare professionals who handle medical equipment and who are exposed to infected patients are at greater risk as well.

How can I protect myself?

Viral infections cannot be treated with antibiotics. When a doctor diagnoses a patient with a viral infection, and that patient insists on taking antibiotics, he is putting himself at greater risk by taking unnecessary drugs. The more antibiotics you take, the greater the risk of developing a superbug infection. Staying up to date on vaccines is a measure that will keep you healthier overall, so keep track of yourself and your family and try not to miss yearly check-ups. Healthcare professionals must be conscientious about hygiene when caring for patients and handling medical equipment. Limited contact with infected persons and good hygiene are the best ways to stay healthy. Wash your hands regularly with soap and water. 15 seconds of scrubbing every now and then—especially if you’ve visited a hospital—can save you from developing a nasty infection.

What should I NOT do, if I think I have such a bug?

Probably – not to go to the ER. You could transfer it to others, and you would be more vulnerable to hospital-borne bugs if you’re already fighting one. Call your primary care. If you think it’s MRSA, soak the affected skin in aloe vera. For this reason, it’s a good idea to have aloe vera in the house at all times.

What special soaps should I use?

Any will do – it’s not about the quality of the soap, it’s more about how long and how thoroughly you wash. Caustic or antibacterial soaps can dry your skin out, causing micro-cuts and cracks that will make you more susceptible to contracting this type of bug—so don’t use those too often. Always wash your hands thoroughly after visiting a hospital or after having contact with a person who has an infection.

What’s the most awkward thing about superbugs?

Asking any doctor or health professional who touches you to wash their hands can be uncomfortable. Just remember that health professionals are aware of the importance of hand-washing in between patients, and should not be offended by the request. It is so important—this is one of the most frequent methods in which these bugs get conveyed—medical professionals going from patient to patient.

Next most awkward thing about superbugs?

Speaking up for—and protecting—a family member. Equally uncomfortable is the need to advocate for a family member who is a patient, making sure that things like catheters and IV ports are checked thoroughly and removed/exchanged frequently. If a device in the body is not being used, it should be removed as soon as possible, rather than left in for the convenience of the hospital staff.

What’s the prognosis?

Each year 2,000,000 people in the United States are infected and 23,000 die, which means that 1.15% of people who are infected with a superbug die as a result. Each superbug is vastly different. Some infections can be mild, while others are more severe and harder to treat. Additional factors like general health and age also affect a person’s prognosis.

Superbugs are scary because the bacteria have evolved in a way in which they are able to resist the only medication we know to treat them. To prevent infection with a superbug, make sure to never take antibiotics without first having been tested for an infection. If you are taking antibiotics, complete the course and always take the dose on time. Good hygiene is another important preventative measure you can take to ensure good health for you and your family.