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Should you fear superbugs?

Created date

April 23rd, 2015

Bacteria are everywhere. Fortunately, our bodies have adapted to most of them. Since the 1940s, antibiotics have reduced illness and death from harmful bacteria. But some of these organisms have sophisticated survival mechanisms and have thus learned to outsmart antibiotics and other antimicrobial agents (such as hand sanitizer). 

Adaptation to antibiotics is part of a natural evolutionary process, but the overuse of such drugs has accelerated the development of antibiotic-resistant bacteria, or so-called “superbugs.” According to the Centers for Disease Control and Development (CDC), at least 2 million people every year in the U.S. become infected with antibiotic-resistant bacteria and about 23,000 people die because of these infections. 

The most dangerous to seniors

The CDC lists 18 types of antibiotic-resistant bacteria that are public health threats here in the U.S. Two are of particular concern for seniors.   

Number one on the CDC’s list is called clostridium difficile (CDIFF). “CDIFF is an intestinal infection that is a direct result of the overuse of antibiotics,” says Herbert DuPont, M.D., director of the Center for Infectious Diseases at the University of Texas Health Science Center at Houston School of Public Health. “Antibiotics kill the naturally occurring bacteria in the intestine. Older adults, as a result of normal aging, can have a different intestinal microbiome than when they were younger, and CDIFF can take over more easily.”

CDIFF causes inflammation in the colon and profuse diarrhea. Once CDIFF has taken over, it is difficult for the body to restore its normal intestinal bacteria, even if someone’s been treated for it with effective antibiotics. People in close quarters, such as hospitals and long-term care facilities, are most vulnerable. Michael Bell, M.D., deputy director of health care quality promotion at the CDC’s National Center for Emerging and Zoonotic Infectious Diseases, says CDIFF has become increasingly common over the last few decades, and can now be found outside of facilities and among the general population.

In 2011, half a million Americans were infected with the bacteria, according to the CDC, and 29,000 died within a month of diagnosis.

Another major culprit

Although it’s number 13 on the CDC’s most dangerous list, methicillin-resistant staphylococcus aureus (MRSA) is especially serious if it infects seniors. “The only effective treatment for MRSA is intravenous antibiotics,” DuPont says.

The bacteria that cause MRSA are found on top of the skin and in the nasal passages of about one-third of the population but are generally harmless unless they get through the skin surface and into the body tissues.

There are two types: hospital-associated and community-associated MRSA. Generally, it starts as small red bumps on the skin resembling spider bites, pimples, or boils. The bacteria can burrow into the body and cause dangerous infections within wounds, heart valves, lungs, joints, bones, and bloodstream. It can spread through intravenous tubing, artificial joints, or other surgical procedures. In 2013, there were about 80,000 serious MRSA infections and over 11,000 deaths, the CDC reports.

“MRSA used to be confined to health care settings, but it has jumped into the community,” DuPont says. “It can occur when people are in close physical contact with one another.”

Community-associated MRSA spreads mostly among athletes, child care workers, and people in crowded living conditions.

Common sense protection

Hand washing is the frontline protection against any type of infection, as long as you do it correctly. “You have to wash your hands with warm running water and soap for at least 15 seconds,” DuPont says. 

Avoid crowded situations. “Flu season is an especially risky time to be in crowds,” DuPont says. “Getting the flu is dangerous enough on its own, but being ill also puts you at risk of getting a bacterial infection along with the influenza virus.” 

Don’t discount minor injuries. “Even scratches on the skin can put seniors at risk,” DuPont says. “Older adults have slower healing times and their defenses don’t work as efficiently. These cuts and scratches must be thoroughly cleaned with soap and water or disinfectants like Betadine.”

If you are prescribed antibiotics, ask if they are absolutely necessary. “People should be given antibiotics that target the exact bacteria causing the infection,” DuPont explains. “Broad-spectrum antibiotics, on the other hand, are prescribed too often, and they kill many different kinds of bacteria good and bad, which is often unnecessary when someone has only one type of bacteria causing an infection.”

There is good news, however. Greater awareness, better infection control, and careful antibiotic prescribing practices have resulted in an 8% decrease in MRSA and an 11% drop in CDIFF infections, CDC officials report.


Infection protection against MRSA

Along with good hygiene, you can minimize your risk of MRSA by doing the following: 

• Wash all cuts and scratches carefully when they first occur, then keep skin cuts and scrapes clean and covered with a bandage until healed.

• Avoid contact with other people’s wounds or bandages.

• Don’t share personal items with others such as towels, washcloths, razors, or clothes.

• Wash soiled sheets, towels, and clothes in hot water with bleach and dry in a hot dryer.