We’ve all caught a so-called “bug”, or virus, that can leave us feeling more than a little under the weather for days or even weeks at a time. The typical bug can result in upset stomach, vomiting, coughing, sneezing, headaches, and overall pain and fatigue while your body fights it off. Often, the bug doesn’t start to fade away until the patient is prescribed antibiotics.
So, if that’s a bug, then what’s a “superbug”? As the name suggests, it’s bacteria that’s highly resistant to many of the measures, including antibiotics, we use to fight illnesses and infections. The good news is that, today, superbugs remain relatively rare, but as people develop resistances to physicians’ go-to antibiotics, it’s expected superbugs will become more prevalent. In fact, some experts worry that superbugs could become far more common in roughly 20 to 30 years’ time, with infections killing millions of people. In the meantime, what do you need to know about these so-called superbugs?
1. What, exactly, is a superbug?
As you might expect, the word “superbug” is not the official medical term. Nevertheless, it has slowly become well-known about doctors all over the world as concerns about an emerging class of highly resistant and dangerous microbes rise.
At their core, most of these superbugs are very similar to the bacteria we’ve been struggling with for hundreds or even thousands of years.
But what sets these new superbugs apart is their remarkable resistance to antibiotics, the go-to treatment for serious infections for the last several generations. The problem is that bacteria are actually evolving and mutating in a way that makes it harder to kill them, making an infection harder to keep from spreading.
2. What makes people vulnerable to superbugs?
For now, superbugs pose only a moderate threat to the vast majority of people. But that can change drastically based on where you spend much of your time. For example, if you find yourself in medical facilities like hospitals on a regular basis, you’re vastly increasing your risk of developing a drug-resistant infection. Put simply, hospitals are hotbeds for tough and highly durable bacteria.
Of course, you’re also opening yourself up to the possibility of infection if you’ve seen your immune system struggle in recent days, weeks, or months. If you’ve sustained some kind of serious injury, have undergone moderate or major surgery, or have come down with some form of infection, your immune system may be facing a serious challenge, leaving it vulnerable to infection from a superbug. For those in this position, be sure to visit your doctor regularly until you’re told the threat has passed.
3. What makes superbugs so scary?
Although the name itself is really quite intimidating, it’s not the reason so many medical experts around the world are worried about the rise of superbugs. Instead, the primary concern is with how these organisms are changing, or mutating, in a way that makes it extremely difficult to identify their weaknesses and prescribe medications that can take them down.
Currently, the superbugs we know about have found a way to survive by mutating in such a way that builds up their resistance to the medical community’s top tools and weapons, namely powerful antibiotics. While antibiotics are capable of killing some of the bacteria that makes up a superbug, the bacteria that remains can actually be stronger and even more resilient to antibiotics.
4. What can I do about superbugs?
As you’d expect, prevention is the best measure in the fight against superbugs. For one thing, talk to your doctor about the need for antibiotics if you sustain a moderate infection that doesn’t pose a threat to your overall health. By refusing to take antibiotics for moderate infections, you could increase your immune system’s defenses and help prevent bacteria from becoming resistant to modern-day antibiotics.
Second, try to limit your time in places, like hospitals, where drug-resistant bacteria tend to be found. If you simply must go into these places (because you’re a patient, visiting someone, or a medical professional), be sure to regularly use hand sanitizer and wash your hands carefully after using the washroom. By being extra careful with your hygiene, you can limit the chances of infection.
5. What are the biggest superbug threats?
Currently, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, or CDC, lists three superbugs at the top of its threat rankings. The first, CRE, infected 9,000 Americans last year. The second, C.difficile, can lead to serious, even life-threatening bouts of diarrhea, while the third, neisseria gonorrhoeae, accounts for roughly a quarter of a million cases of drug-resistant gonorrhea every year.
Beyond these three threats, there are roughly another dozen that could be considered superbugs. Together, these remaining superbugs can lead to infections causing a wide range of serious symptoms, from blood infections to painful diarrhea.
6. Are superbugs a threat right now?
So, do you have anything to fear about superbugs right now? Yes and no. While physicians believe infections from superbugs are steadily growing, only about two million Americans were diagnosed with infections from antibiotic-resistant bacteria last year, with most people surviving the illness.
However, these remain highly dangerous infections, with research showing roughly three-quarters of a million people dying as a result of superbug infections around the world. It’s worth keeping in mind, however, that many countries don’t have the medical support available in Western nations like the United States, Canada, England, or Germany. In any case, it’s expected the threat of superbugs to rise from relatively moderate today to far more substantial in a decade from now.