Antibiotic Resistance 101: What Are Superbugs and How Can We Fight Them?

Bacteria are small yet smart, and some of them are becoming what we call superbugs or antibiotic-resistant bacteria. Let’s talk about exactly what superbugs are, why they’re so dangerous, and how you can help keep them at bay.

What is antibiotic resistance?

When an antibiotic is no longer effective against bacteria it would normally treat, we call that bacteria “antibiotic-resistant”. Antibiotic-resistant bacteria could be resistant to one specific antibiotic or to multiple antibiotics. The more antibiotics a bacteria is resistant to, the more dangerous and hard-to-treat that bacteria becomes.

How does antibiotic resistance happen?

When you take an antibiotic to treat an infection, your prescription should be strong enough and long enough to kill all of the bacteria. If not, the leftover bacteria can adapt, becoming antibiotic-resistant and harder to kill. When it comes to bacteria, what doesn’t kill them literally makes them stronger.

Why are superbugs so dangerous?

Before antibiotic use became standard practice, common infections like pneumonia and tuberculosis were leading causes of death in the US. Imagine if those antibiotics suddenly stopped working! That’s why superbugs are such a hot topic of concern. Here are four of the most dangerous superbugs out there:

1) Methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus (MRSA)

MRSA is a type of antibiotic-resistant bacteria that usually causes skin infections but can also cause fatal lung infections (pneumonia) and bloodstream infections (sepsis) without treatment. MRSA is hard to treat because it doesn’t respond to many of the most commonly used antibiotics, like penicillins. The good news is that rates of MRSA in hospitals are decreasing as we get better at keeping infections from spreading.

2) Antibiotic-resistant Clostridium difficile (C. diff)

C. diff is a dangerous infection that causes severe inflammation, cramping, and diarrhea. Ironically, you have a higher risk of developing C. diff if you’ve taken antibiotics recently. Almost 30 thousand people in the US die of C. diff every year, and this statistic is even more concerning when you consider that many C. diff infections are resistant to common antibiotics.

3) Super drug-resistant gonorrhea

Gonorrhea, which can cause sterility and miscarriage, is one of the most common sexually transmitted diseases in the US, typically affecting people in their teens and early 20s. It used to be easily treated with azithromycin (Zithromax) or ceftriaxone (Rocephin). But over time, super drug-resistant gonorrhea has spread, making treating it much more difficult. According to the CDC, of 400 thousand new cases of gonorrhea reported each year, about a third are resistant to at least one antibiotic.

4) Multi-drug-resistant tuberculosis (MDR TB)

TB is an infection that attacks your lungs and could cause severe coughing, chest pain, fatigue, and weight loss. Deemed a global emergency by the World Health Organization (WHO), MDR TB doesn’t respond to isoniazid or rifampin—two of the core TB antibiotics. There were over 500 thousand new cases of MDR TB in 2017 alone! Even worse, there’s another type of TB—extensively drug-resistant TB (XDR TB)—that’s even more antibiotic-resistant. XDR TB won’t respond to at least four of the core TB antibiotics.

One of the major concerns with TB is that it’s so easy to spread the infection. All it takes is someone carrying antibiotic-resistant TB bacteria to cough, sing, sneeze, or speak to transmit TB particles to other people through the air.

Can you treat an antibiotic-resistant infection?

Unfortunately, when dealing with antibiotic-resistant infections, treatment options are limited. Here are a few ways we attempt to work around treatment barriers:

  • Use another antibiotic that’s not as effective. Depending on how many antibiotics the bacteria is resistant to, there’s usually a chance that doctors can prescribe another antibiotic. But typically, that medication isn’t as effective as the antibiotic of choice.
  • Use older antibiotics with a high risk of side effects. Sometimes, we have to dig into the arsenal of old antibiotics to find one that the bacteria isn’t resistant to. But oftentimes, these old medications come with a high risk of side effects or the risk of more severe side effects than newer antibiotics.
  • Provide supportive care. In a worst-case scenario where no antibiotics are working, the most we can do is provide supportive care to keep your body as close to its normal state as possible. In keeping you stable, the hope is that the infection will eventually go away on its own.

Fortunately, there are still treatment options for most infections, even if those options are severely limited. But this may not always be the case as we continue battling superbugs.

How can we fight antibiotic resistance?

The fight against superbugs is global. Organizations like WHO, the CDC, and the FDA are collaborating to urge health professionals and patients to make changes to the way they prescribe and take antibiotics, respectively.

Here are 3 ways you can fight against superbugs starting now:

  • Avoid asking your doctor for antibiotics if you have a cold or flu. Colds and the flu are caused by viruses, and antibiotics only work against bacteria.
  • Don’t share antibiotics or take antibiotics that are leftover from past infections. Always confirm with a health professional first that your infection is caused by bacteria.
  • Take all your antibiotics even if you start feeling better. Stopping early could leave room for leftover bacteria to become stronger and more resistant to the antibiotics you’re taking.

There’s always more to learn about preventing yourself from getting sick with an antibiotic-resistant infection and taking antibiotics safely. Check out our related blog posts here:

  • 10 Things You Can Do To Prevent Illness From an Antibiotic-Resistant Bacteria
  • How To Take Antibiotics Safely: 7 Steps To Avoid Side Effects and Heal Faster

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