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You can protect yourself against superbugs

Some simple preventive measures can keep antibiotic-resistant bacteria at bay.

washing hands superbugs
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Although the Zika virus got more publicity throughout the summer, another—and even scarier-sounding—microbe also made headlines. Dubbed a new “superbug,” strains of E. coli resistant to the antibiotic colistin were found in the United States. Colistin is a drug often used when others fail to control a bacterial infection. Fortunately, the bacteria weren’t resistant to other antibiotics, which cleared the infections. “Although this particular case of antibiotic resistance may not be as dire as the media made it sound, in general these increasingly high-level resistances are an enormous problem,” says Dr. Sarah Fortune, professor of immunology and infectious diseases at Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health.

Why superbugs are such a problem

Like other forms of life, bacteria are always evolving to become stronger and survive longer. One of the ways they increase their chances of survival is to acquire genes that help them resist threats—including natural enemies like viruses and man-made weapons like antibiotics. These genes can spring up within a bacterium through mutations and are passed down to subsequent generations of the microbe. In addition, they can be found on rings of DNA called plasmids, which can be transmitted to other types of bacteria, enabling the resistance to spread wider and faster. The E. coli strains discovered in 2016 raised concern because they carry the colistin-resistance gene on plasmids and thus have the potential to transfer the plasmids to bacteria that are already resistant to several other antibiotics.

How worried should you be?

“It’s not like folks are going out and touching things on the subway and acquiring a completely drug-resistant bacterium,” Dr. Fortune says. Resistant strains are more likely to be found in hospitals and nursing homes, where people are already taking a lot of antibiotics. And even hospital-based infections are less frequent than they once were. In recent years, hospitals have stepped up their efforts to quickly identify microbes with high-level drug resistances and respond to them so their patients aren’t put at risk.

What you can do to prevent superbug infections

While it’s up to scientists to create new antibiotics and to health care personnel to prevent superbug epidemics in hospitals, there’s still a lot that you can do to stop these germs from spreading, including the following:

  • Wash your hands. You probably wash your hands after using the bathroom, before preparing or eating food, and after gardening or other dirty tasks. You should also wash up after blowing your nose, coughing, or sneezing; feeding or stroking your pet; or visiting or caring for a sick person.

  • Get recommended vaccines. You’re more susceptible to a superbug infection if you have the flu, pneumonia or shingles.

  • Use antibiotics properly. Don’t insist on an antibiotic if your doctor doesn’t think you need one. Be willing to wait for test results to determine what bacterium you have and what medication is best for treating it. Don’t take antibiotics that are left over from an earlier illness or have been prescribed for someone else. When you do take antibiotics, take them exactly as prescribed.

  • Choose animal-based foods that are certified organic. “A lot of antibiotic resistance appears to be driven by the agricultural use of antibiotics as growth enhancers,” Dr. Fortune says. Look for the “USDA Certified Organic” label on meat, poultry, eggs, and dairy products, which means that they come from animals that were not given any antibiotics.

What to do if you think you have an infection

Only a laboratory test can distinguish a superbug infection from a run-of-the-mill cold, flu, or urinary tract infection. If you feel progressively worse over a few days, especially if you develop shaking chills and fever, call your doctor or get to an urgent care center. Try to avoid the emergency department, where you’re more likely to infect others and be exposed to people carrying other infections.

Posted by: Dr.Health

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