Superbugs is a topic that makes the news off and on again, particularly strains of MRSA. While it’s not part of your daily health concerns, the idea of contracting an infectious disease that is incredibly difficult to treat is worrisome. But, what are they?
Superbugs are bacterial infections that have become resistant to the current sets of antibiotic treatments given for the infection. Some are antibiotic specific (they are only resistant to one antibiotic), and some are multi-drug resistant (meaning they are resistant to many forms of antibiotics).
How It Happens
All superbugs started out as a typical, run of the mill infectious bacteria. Typically, those are treated with antibiotics quite successfully. But, nature is designed for survival. Small changes occur to the genetic makeup of the bacteria, and a small portion becomes resistant to the antibiotic. Even then, that alone isn’t enough to cause problems. They aren’t immune to the drug, it just has a harder time being effective. If the person doesn’t kill off all the infection by taking the entire course of their antibiotics that were prescribed, the strongest ones that are resistant remain. As the infection begins to grow again, they run the risk of having a full-bore infection of a resistant strain of the bacteria – a superbug. Simply put: the weakest bacteria die, and the strongest survive.
This isn’t the only source of superbugs. Inappropriate use of antibiotics also poses a huge problem. For example, antibiotics have no effect on viruses, so using antibiotics for a viral infection such as the flu, can allow bacteria that wasn’t specifically targeted by the antibiotic to follow the same path as not taking the entire course of an antibiotic. The weakest bacteria die, and the strongest survive.
Some Noteworthy Types of Superbugs
E. Coli: Escherichia coli illnesses are fairly common in the United States. Shiga toxin producing E. Coli (STPE) are the type that are harmful to humans – the shiga toxin isn’t exclusive to E. Coli, but it’s one of the most common sources, with 265,000 cases occurring yearly. More recently, there’s a strain that’s come up that’s resistant to nearly everything.
MRSA: Methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus is a drug-resistant version of Staph. Staph is extremely common, and 1/3rd of the population at any given time has the bacteria on their body. If it gets into an open wound, then it can cause a staph infection which is more often than not easily treated. The MRSA strain isn’t as common, fortunately, but it’s still common enough to be a concern: over 80,000 MRSA infections occur yearly, and 11,000 deaths. In 2014, the FDA approved the use of Dalvance for MRSA infections, giving healthcare providers another tool to combat the infection.
Gonorrhea: Gonorrhea is the second most common infectious disease, with around 820,000 cases per year. Drug-resistant Gonorrhea is a relative newcomer on the scene, and is currently on the rise.
You’ll notice that the three mentioned superbugs are very different from each other. E. coli infections are associated most often with food or urinary tract infections, MRSA with physical contact, and Gonorrhea with sexual contact. There’s not a certain “type” to superbugs. They occur in all sorts of infectious diseases. This isn’t a complete list, just a sample. We could have also included klebsiella pneumoniae, clostridium difficile (c. diff), tuberculosis, salmonella, all of them fairly common in their non-resistent forms.
Are You At Risk?
Generally speaking, most people are at a fairly low risk for infection from a superbug. But, there are factors such as recent hospitalization or frequent use of antibiotics, for example, that can increase your risks. For each of the superbugs mentioned above, avoiding infection is the same as avoiding infection from the non-superbug strains. For instance: with E. coli, hand washing after using the restroom and before handling food is a must, along with washing fruits and vegetables, . For Gonorrhea, unprotected sex (oral, vaginal, or anal) increases your risk of infection considerably. Follow best practices in your daily life as you would normally to avoid infection from most infectious diseases.
Follow best practices in your daily life as you would normally to avoid infection from most infectious diseases. Furthermore, trust your health care provider, if he/she tells you the infection is viral, and don’t attempt to pressure him/her to prescribe an antibiotic. Even if someone has previously given you antibiotics for the same symptoms in the past, and you believe the antibiotics helped. The infection would have had the same outcome without antibiotics, because most viruses simply have to “run their course”, and time was all you actually needed. Above all, when you are prescribed antibiotics, make sure you take them exactly as directed and finish them even if you feel better.
Additionally, community related cases are an issue, mainly from contact sports such as wrestling.
There’s two parts to preventing the increase of superbugs. Part of it falls on the medical community, and part of it falls on individuals.
For the medical community, there’s already a number of systems in place to help reduce the rise and spread of superbugs, including reporting systems, procedural improvements, appropriate use of antibiotics, and research into new antibiotics which includes a faster track from the FDA for research and development.
For individuals, you can certainly help reduce the development of superbugs, and reduce your own risk factors. Along with following good, healthy habits mentioned in the “Are You At Risk” section already, always do the following:
Take all your prescription: When you are prescribed an antibiotic, take the entire course of the drug as instructed. By not taking the entire prescription as directed, you are putting yourself and those around you at risk.
Listen to your healthcare provider: Often, people insist on a course of antibiotics for an issue, when one isn’t needed. It’s considered by some to be a cure all – and it isn’t. The flu is a virus, and cannot be treated with antibiotics, for instance.
Communicate with your healthcare provider: If you are taking a prescription for an infection, and it’s not improving in a reasonable amount of time, don’t panic. But, do stay in communication with your healthcare provider and tell them what’s happening. Sometimes it takes longer than expected for an antibiotic to show improvement, but if you’re near the end of your prescription and there’s still not improvement, it’s a good time to talk to your healthcare provider.
Be aware of others: If you have a resistant form of infection, be sure to take appropriate precautions not to expose others to potential infection. Follow your healthcare professional’s advice closely – it’s not just a matter of keeping you healthy, it’s a matter of making sure your friends and family stay healthy, too.
This article is for educational purposes only, and should not be considered medical advice. Healthcare is an individualized process, and reading an article online should not be your source for healthcare advice - instead, it's intended to help you better understand the process or healthcare, inform about a specific disease, or present the potential for lifestyle changes that may occur with a disease or disorder. Do no rely on online articles for healthcare - instead, consult your healthcare provider if you feel you may be suffering from symptoms presented in this article, or other symptoms not listed here.
Staphylococcus aureus bacteria image from the National Institute of Health, via their Flickr account.