No one wants to get sicker during a hospital stay. Whether you (or a loved one) are in the hospital for a serious illness or a straight-forward surgery, developing an infection from a dangerous superbug can leave you clinging to life. The bad news: superbugs in hospitals are common and dangerous. And you don’t have to be in the hospital to get a superbug. The good news: hospitals are making progress in reducing infections, and you can take steps to protect yourself from superbugs.
What exactly is a superbug?
In simple terms, a superbug is bacteria that has become resistant to antibiotics. Alarmingly, many of the medicines currently used don’t work against superbugs.
WHO’s list of the 12 most dangerous superbugs.
In 2017, World Health Organization (WHO) released their first-ever list of 12 families of antibiotic-resistant bacteria that pose the greatest threat to human health. WHO created their list to guide and promote research of new antibiotics.
The report states that antibiotic-resistance is growing, and the medical community is running out of treatment options.
The most dangerous bacteria, classified as “critical priority”, include a group of multi-drug resistant bacteria that are dangerous for patients who rely on devices such as ventilators and blood catheters in hospitals, nursing homes and other settings.
These bugs can cause severe, often fatal infections, such as blood stream infections and pneumonia.
To make matters worse, according to WHO, “these bacteria have built-in abilities to find new ways to resist treatment and can pass along genetic material that allows other bacteria to become drug-resistant as well.”
How common and dangerous are superbugs?
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), every year in the US, at least 2.8 million people become infected with drug-resistant bacteria and at least 35,000 people die each year as a direct result of these infections.
And the US is not the only place dealing with this issue. It’s a worldwide crisis. And it’s scary. It’s worth taking the time to learn how to protect yourself from superbugs.
How are patients exposed to superbugs?
Unfortunately, patient exposure can occur in many ways. For instance, pathogens move through the air from one person to another through coughs and sneezes. And medical staff who do not adequately wash their hands between patients can transfer germs to other patients.
Additionally, germs can live on hard surfaces, such as bed rails, nurse call buttons, tray tables. When items are not properly cleaned and disinfected on a regular basis, anyone who touches them can get sick. Lastly, these germs can live on medical equipment, such as ventilators and catheters, that has not been adequately cleaned.
What is being done to protect us from superbugs?
Although antimicrobials are critical for fighting these pathogens, scientists are not developing nearly enough of them. Importantly, developing new antibiotics is a long-term project and patients face dangerous germs now. Additionally, experts believe the development of new antibiotics won’t be enough to eradicate this problem.
The WHO report states that although “more R&D is vital, alone, it cannot solve the problem. To address resistance, there must also be better prevention of infections and appropriate use of existing antibiotics in humans and animals, as well as rational use of any new antibiotics that are developed in future.”
There’s good news.
The death rate in the US from these dangerous infections is decreasing. In 2013, an estimated 44,000 Americans died from drug-resistant infections, compared to 36,000 deaths in 2017.
However, seniors take note! In 2017, six common antibiotic-resistant microbial infections in led to almost 12,000 deaths among Americans 65+ years old.
But, there’s also some bad news.
Non-fatal infections increased in the US – from 2.6 million in 2013 to 2.8 million in 2017. Moreover, “some worrisome new germs are emerging. And superbugs are appearing much more often outside of hospitals.”
What can you do to protect yourself from superbugs?
Of course, there is nothing you can do that will guarantee safety from superbugs. But there are steps you can take to reduce your risk of getting one of these nasty infections.
Reduce your exposure to pathogens:
- Since germs linger everywhere in hospitals, act as if all items in a hospital room are contaminated. Regularly wipe down hard surfaces with wipes containing bleach, including items that fall on the floor.
- Ask all medical staff to wash their hands and/or put on a new pair of sterile gloves before touching the patient. Don’t be bashful. Unfortunately, doctors and other medical staff are not washing their hands as frequently as they should. For more information see our blog post on handwashing.
- Ask for a private room to reduce the chance of contamination from a sick roommate. If you cannot get a private room, use the room separating curtain – especially if the roommate is coughing and/or sneezing.
- Brush your teeth regularly – it can prevent pneumonia!
- Ask your medical team if you should bath with antimicrobial soap and/or use an antimicrobial nasal cleanser/treatment. Studies have shown these steps can significantly reduce bloodstream infections.
Watch out for pathogens on medical equipment:
- Insist all medical staff wash their hands and/or put on new gloves before handling a clean/new tool. Furthermore, ask staff to do the same when handling these items that are already in use on the patient (e.g. ventilator tubes, catheters).
- Every day ask about the removal of catheters, ventilators and other tubes, since the longer they are in use, the higher the risk of infection.
Reduce antibiotic overuse:
- First of all, try to avoid getting infections so you won’t need antibiotics. According to the CDC, you can prevent drug-resistant infections by immunization, safe food preparation, regular handwashing with soap and water, and using antibiotics as directed and only when necessary.
- If you are prescribed an antibiotic, ask if it is necessary, or if the doctor is prescribing it as a precaution. If the doctor is prescribing it as a precaution, ask about other possible precautions.
- Use antibiotics only as prescribed – take the appropriate dosage each day and be sure to take all the medication.
- If you are taking antibiotics and miss a dose, ask your doctor what to do.
- Never take leftover antibiotics or medications prescribed to someone else.
- Don’t pressure your doctor to give you an antibiotic. If your doctor doesn’t think you need them, ask for advice for managing your symptoms.
- To learn more, read my blog post: Are Antibiotics Helpful or Harmful? What You Need to Know.
Want more information?
All hospital stays involve risk. Read these blog posts to reduce your risk of problems:
- Germs in Hospitals and Doctor Offices – Watch Out!
- Protect Yourself from Hospital Infections.
- Why is Sepsis so Dangerous?
- How do you Get C. Diff Infections?
- The Dangers of Missed Bedside Alarms.
- Medication Errors in Hospitals – How Can You Protect Yourself?
- Tips for Hospital Discharges.
- What You Need to Know About Pressure Sores.
- What’s Your Hospital’s Safety Record? Is Your Hospital Safe?
- Is Your Hospital Safe? Are Programs in Place to Avoid Dangerous “Never Events”?
Note: I updated this post on 3-29-22.