Strategies for Well-Being
Sadly, the way we’ve been using antibiotics is helping to create new drug-resistant “superbugs.
Antibiotics are among the most commonly prescribed drugs for people. They’re also given to livestock to prevent disease and promote growth. Antibiotics are effective against bacterial infections, such as strep throat and some types of pneumonia, diarrheal diseases and ear infections. But these drugs don’t work at all against viruses, such as those that cause colds or flu.
For almost 100 years, bacteria fighting drugs known as antibiotics have helped to control and destroy many of the harmful bacteria that can make us sick. But in recent decades, antibiotics have been losing their punch against some types of bacteria. In fact, certain bacteria are now unbeatable with today’s medicines.
“Superbugs” are strains of bacteria that are resistant to several types of antibiotics. Each year these drug-resistant bacteria infect more than 2 million people nationwide and kill at least 23,000, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Drug-resistant forms of tuberculosis, gonorrhea, and staph infections are just a few of the dangers we now face.
Here’s how that might happen. When used properly, antibiotics can help destroy disease-causing bacteria. But if you take an antibiotic when you have a viral infection like the flu, the drug won’t affect the viruses making you sick. Instead, it’ll destroy a wide variety of bacteria in your body, including some of the “good” bacteria that help you digest food, fight infection and stay healthy. Bacteria that are tough enough to survive the drug will have a chance to grow and quickly multiply. These drug-resistant strains may even spread to other people.
Over time, if more and more people take antibiotics when not necessary, drug-resistant bacteria can continue to thrive and spread. They may even share their drug-resistant traits with other bacteria. Drugs may become less effective or not work at all against certain disease-causing bacteria.
We all often complicate matters by failing to complete the proper course of medication, stopping when symptoms go away or using leftover pills to treat a possibly unrelated future infection. When this happens, treatment kills most but not all of the bacteria. The surviving bacteria are resistant to the current antibiotics, causing doctors to prescribe a stronger antibiotic. But the bacteria can learn to withstand the more potent drug as well, perpetuating a cycle in which increasingly powerful drugs are required to treat infections. This new species of fungal infection has the potential to become a serious public health challenge – a threat similar to that of antibiotic resistance.
Unfortunately, many antibiotics prescribed to people and to animals are unnecessary. And the overuse and misuse of antibiotics helps to create drug-resistant bacteria.
In the past, some of the most dangerous superbugs have been confined to health care settings. That’s because people who are sick or in a weakened state are more susceptible to picking up infections. But superbug infections aren’t limited to hospitals. Some strains are out in the community and anyone, even healthy people, can become infected.
One common superbug increasingly seen outside hospitals is methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus – or MRSA. It’s is a type of staph bacteria that is resistant to several antibiotics. In the general, MRSA most often causes skin infections. In some cases, it causes pneumonia – a lung infection – and other issues. If left untreated, MRSA infections can become severe and cause sepsis – a life-threatening reaction to severe infection in the body.
Although antibiotic-resistant bacterial infections are a widely recognized public health threat, much less is known about drug-resistant fungal infections. Unlike garden-variety yeast infections, this one causes serious bloodstream infections, spreads easily from person to person in health care settings, and survives for months on skin and for weeks on bed rails, chairs and other hospital equipment.
The fungal infection in question is Candida auris, which can cause infections in the mouth, genitals, ears, wounds or – worst of all – the bloodstream. While other species of Candida can lead to the same kinds of infections, Candida auris is getting worldwide attention because, according to a study in the February 2017 journal Emerging Infectious Diseases, some cases have proved to be resistant to all three classes of drugs available to treat fungal infections.
The real danger occurs when the fungal infection enters the bloodstream, leading to sepsis – the body’s overwhelming response to an infection, which can slow blood flow, damage organs and sometimes cause death.
The best way to prevent bacterial infections is by washing your hands frequently with soap and water. It’s also a good idea not to share personal items such as towels or razors. And use antibiotics only as directed.
Remember, I’m not a doctor. I just sound like one.
Take good care of yourself and live the best life possible!
The information included in this column is for educational purposes only. It is not intended nor implied to be a substitute for professional medical advice. The reader should always consult his or her health care provider to determine the appropriateness of the information for their own situation or if they have any questions regarding a medical condition or treatment plan. Glenn Ellis is a Health Advocacy Communications Specialist and is available through http://www.glennellis.com.