How to protect your family from superbugs

June 18, 2019 in Health Risk Management  •  By Miles Varn, MD

Recent news coverage focused on antibiotic-resistant bacteria and treatment-resistant fungi has increased awareness of the threat that these so-called superbugs represent. Currently, two million people in the U.S. contract these infections each year and 23,000 die as a result. A U.N. report describes the increase in the number and type of health problems caused by these resistant bacteria, microbes, fungi, and protozoa as a global crisis with the potential to cause 10 million deaths each year by 2030.

And while that projection and the recent news are alarming, most healthy people are not at an increased risk of being infected by superbugs going about their day to day lives. Most infections are contracted in hospitals, healthcare facilities, and nursing homes, usually by people who have multiple health problems and compromised immunity, although there is also an antibiotic-resistant strain of the sexually transmitted infection gonorrhea. Some antibiotic-resistant bacteria are also spread through mishandled food.

What are superbugs?

Superbug is a colloquial term for bacteria that have developed resistance to treatment with antibiotics. Some people also use the term to refer to fungi and microbes that have developed resistance to the majority of treatments usually used for the conditions they cause.

One of the main behaviors driving the increase in antibiotic-resistant bacteria is the overuse and misuse of antibiotics, for example, when people request antibiotics for a cold or fail to finish their complete course of antibiotics for a bacterial infection. Other issues that have been linked to the rise in treatment-resistant bacteria include adding antibiotics to animal feed and using them in fish farming, poor hygiene and sanitation, and poor infection control practices in healthcare settings.

Take these precautions to lower your risk

There are simple steps you can take that can help lower your risk of contracting antibiotic-resistant infections:

  • Always practice good hygiene. Regularly wash your hands with soap and water or, if that’s not available, use alcohol-based hand sanitizer. Pets can carry these bacteria, so always wash your hands thoroughly after cleaning up after your pet or touching your pet, its food, or bedding.
  • Don’t ask for antibiotics if you don’t need them. When you’re sick, ask your doctor what the appropriate treatment is and don’t request antibiotics for illnesses that aren’t caused by bacteria, such as colds or the flu, which are caused by viruses. If you are prescribed antibiotics, take all of the medication, even if you feel better partway through treatment. And don’t share antibiotics with family members.
  • Handle food safely. Salmonella and Campylobacter, which can be found on produce and in meat, poultry, and fish cause around 400,000 antibiotic-resistant infections in the U.S. each year. To lower your risk of contracting a foodborne illness, carefully wash all produce (even produce where you don’t eat the skin) and thoroughly cook meat and fish. It’s also important to clean the surfaces you prepare food on, keep raw meat, poultry, seafood, and eggs away from other ingredients, and refrigerate leftovers within two hours.
  • Ask questions if you’re in the hospital. You and your family are your best advocates. Speak up and ask all healthcare providers to make sure they wash their hands when they enter and leave your room. You can also ask what the hospital’s infection control practices and infection rates are.
  • Practice safer sex. If you’re sexually active, you can reduce your risk of contracting a sexually transmitted infection by always using a condom. It’s also important to talk with your partner about past partners, drug use, and any previous sexually transmitted infections so you can better gauge your risk.