Superbugs: 7 Things to Know About Your Risk

  • Bacteria
    Should You Be Worried?
    The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) now identifies 18 germs that cannot be effectively treated with available antibiotic medications. Many of these so-called “superbug” strains, which have become resistant to even the strongest antibiotics, involve common organisms like the one that causes pneumonia. This raises concerns because it means people who become infected with one of these bugs don’t have many treatment options. Fortunately, by knowing the facts about superbugs, you can take simple steps to reduce your risk of exposure to a potentially drug-resistant infection and help stop the spread of these dangerous bacteria.

  • HIV Virus
    1. The term “superbug” refers to any antibiotic-resistant microorganism.
    These include bacterial organisms and viruses. Superbugs are born when the DNA of a common microbe like Staphylococcus aureas mutates in a way that allows it to resist the effects of medications designed to kill it (as in methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureas, commonly known as MRSA). These mutations often occur after a microorganism has been exposed to low doses of antibiotics over a long period of time. Superbugs cannot be effectively treated with currently available antibiotics, which makes them very dangerous.

  • Doctor comforting patient in office
    2. Each year 2 million Americans become infected with a superbug.
    And at least 23,000 of them die, according to the CDC. The CDC currently lists 18 microorganisms that do not respond well—or at all—to antibiotic medications. Worse, new superbugs keep emerging in nearly every country in the world. The World Health Organization reports high levels of antibiotic resistance in seven common bacteria around the globe. These superbugs can travel from one country to another through exported meat, among other methods.

  • Clean kitchen
    3. Prevention of superbugs is possible.
    Since superbugs cannot be effectively treated with medications, prevention is your only line of defense against them. Handwashing, vaccinations, prudent use of antibiotics, keeping your kitchen clean, avoiding cross-contamination of foods, practicing safe sex, and other measures can keep superbugs out of your body and environment. And superbug prevention doesn’t have to be complicated. The next three slides address simple steps you can take to reduce your risk of picking up a resistant microorganism.

  • Wash Your Hands
    4. Handwashing is more effective than hand sanitizer.
    When it comes to infection prevention, handwashing is superior to antimicrobial hand rub. In fact, hand rubs may contribute to the problem of superbugs by exposing microbes to small doses of agents designed to kill them. So ditch the sanitizer and use plain soap and water instead: Wet your hands, apply a healthy dollop of regular soap, rub vigorously for 30 seconds, rinse thoroughly and dry thoroughly. Wash your hands regularly, particularly after using the bathroom, to prevent spreading germs of all kinds.

  • Patient receiving shot in shoulder
    5. Vaccines against regular bacteria will defend you from superbugs.
    Antibiotic-resistant strains of common bacteria like pneumococcus, meningitis and tuberculosis have arisen in recent years. The good news: Each of these diseases is preventable through vaccination. An immunization against the typical strain of these diseases provides you with protection against getting the resistant version. Ask your healthcare provider which vaccines you need for your age group, and stay on top of them. And be sure your children receive the appropriate immunizations to protect them, too. 

  • Medicines in hand
    6. Overusing antibiotics can weaken your defenses—and make superbugs stronger.
    Antibiotic medications have no effect on viruses. That means when you get a common cold or the flu, taking an antibiotic pill won’t help. If you’re feeling ill and visit a doctor, trust his or her advice on whether an antibiotic would benefit you. If you do receive an antibiotic, be sure to follow instructions properly and take all of it, even if you’re feeling better. Failing to take the full course of antibiotics allows microbes to develop resistance to the drug.

  • woman receiving results from doctor
    7. Speaking up about risk factors can save your life—or a loved one’s.
    Each year in the U.S., more than 600,000 people pick up an infection in the hospital. In fact, hospitalization is a top risk factor for acquiring MRSA. You can reduce your chances of acquiring a superbug by looking up a hospital’s infection rate before choosing where to have a non-emergency procedure performed, observing whether or not care professionals wash their hands (and asking them to do so before they touch you), and questioning the necessity of any antibiotics before you take them. 

Superbugs: 7 Things to Know About Your Risk

About The Author

As “the nurse who knows content,” Elizabeth Hanes, RN, works with national and regional healthcare systems, brands, agencies and publishers to produce all types of consumer-facing content. Formerly a perioperative and cosmetic surgery nurse, Elizabeth today uses her nursing knowledge to inform her writing on a wide variety of medical, health and wellness topics.
  1. Antibiotic/Antimicrobial Resistance. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
  2. Antibiotics. Medline Plus.
  3. Infographic: Antimicrobial Resistance Global Report on Surveillance 2014. World Health Organization.
  4. Patient Education: Methicillin Resistant Staphylococcus Aureas (MRSA). Up To Date.

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Medical Reviewer: William C. Lloyd III, MD, FACS
Last Review Date: 2020 Oct 30
THIS TOOL DOES NOT PROVIDE MEDICAL ADVICE. It is intended for informational purposes only. It is not a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. Never ignore professional medical advice in seeking treatment because of something you have read on the site. If you think you may have a medical emergency, immediately call your doctor or dial 911.