Superbugs 101: Terms You Should Know

What's C. diff? Are we in a post-antibiotics era? Get the 411 on superbugs.

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What is a Superbug?

It sounds like a movie: Drug-resistant bacteria start infecting a country as doctors scramble to stop it. Unfortunately, when it comes to real life superbugs, that’s not far from the truth. These infectious organisms have become resistant to antibiotics -- mostly because of misuse and overuse in our society. And they infect more than 2 million people a year. Get familiar with the emerging threat of superbugs with these key terms.

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It’s a mouthful, but methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus (MRSA) is a term you’ll hear more and more about. This potentially life-threatening staph infection, which can be resistant to many types of antibiotics, may lead to skin infections, pneumonia and infections in the bloodstream. At one time it was primarily found in healthcare facilities, but MRSA is now in our communities, too. The good news is that in many cases you can avoid it with frequent, thorough hand-washing and, of course, limiting or avoiding exposure. Find out where superbugs lurk.

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Post-Antibiotic Era

On April 30, 2014, the World Health Organization (WHO) released a report stating that resistance to antibiotics is now a major threat to public health. “Without urgent, coordinated action … the world is headed for a post-antibiotic era, in which common infections and minor injuries which have been treatable for decades can once again kill,” stated Keiji Fukuda, MD, MPH, who is WHO’s Assistant Director-General for Health Security.

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C. diff

Short for Clostridium difficile, C. diff is a bacterial infection that causes inflammation of the colon. Symptoms include diarrhea, fever, nausea, abdominal pain and loss of appetite. According to emergency room physician Darria Long Gillespie, MD, there are three major risk factors: antibiotic use that has killed off your intestines’ good bacteria and allows the infection to take control, being in a hospital or nursing home and close contact with someone who had it. “It’s not just bad hygiene,” says Dr. Darria, “you really have to have one of those risk factors. You’re not going to catch it from going to the store or on the train.”

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Viruses and Antivirals

Not all infections are caused by bacteria. Some common illnesses, such as the flu, are caused by viruses -- which antibiotics don’t treat. Health experts say patients shouldn’t ask their doctors for antibiotics when the cause of an illness is likely due to a virus. In fact, taking antibiotics when you actually have a virus is a major cause of antibiotic resistance. So what can you do for a virus? Taken early enough, antiviral medication can shorten the time you’re sick. Other medications can help relieve some of the symptoms, including fever.

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