Aagh, Superbugs!! They’re Everywhere!!
Did I scare you?!
Just kidding. They’re not everywhere… yet… (dun dun DUHN!) 😉
If you’ve been reading this blog for a while, you’re probably familiar with my strong aversion towards superbugs…but, if not, it’s still okay… ’cause I’m gonna go out on a limb and get really vulnerable with you guys. I’m going to tell you about one of my deepest, darkest childhood fears… don’t judge. 😉
The year was 1990-something…
It was right around bedtime, and my family was all together watching Dateline (or maybe it was Nightline)… either way… Doom & Gloom. There was a particularly riveting episode this night.
The topic… Staph Infections… of the flesh-eating variety.
My wide-eyed, unsuspecting, 10 (or 11)-year old self sat captivated in front of the TV, paralyzed in fear… and a gripping fascination.
I consumed every second of their foreboding story of a woman’s life-threatening battle with a deadly form of flesh-eating Staph infection. They showed vivid images (which I will spare you in description of), and spoke of the nearness of these bacteria… lurking in public restrooms… community pools… and yes… even playgrounds.
And I thought, Oh… Dear… God… this is the end of us.
(don’t worry Mom, I don’t remember having nightmares that night. 😉 )
Needless to say, they painted a gruesome picture that my unassuming young self took and ran with. Fast forward to today… I’ve armed myself with a little more knowledge on the subject , and luckily, am much less afraid since I know we actually have more power over the fate of our future in health and treating infections than I may have previously thought! (although, admittedly, I’m still a little freaked out by the occasional Dateline exposé! 😉 )
So, even though I’ve written a few times about various superbuggy things… For arguments sake, I want to make sure everyone’s on the same page, and cover a few basics before diving into the hows of reducing your risk of getting caught by one of these menacing critters!
What’s a Superbug?!
I think Websters does a nice job of defining them succinctly…
SUPERBUG: a pathogenic microorganism and especially a bacterium that has developed resistance to the medications normally used against it
Layman’s terms: A superbug is a type of infection that is hard to treat because it’s built up a resistance to commonly used antibiotics.
Think bugs with super powers and capes on.
Examples of Superbugs…
There are actually (unfortunately) several types of bacteria that have become resistant to the antibiotics we have available, but to spare you, I’m going to cover the two that are most common in the patients I deal with every day.
MRSA (Methicillin-Resistant Staphylococcus Aureus)
Mr. Staph Aureus has been around for a while, he’s a generous guy who likes to pass out all kinds of goodies. In all seriousness though, S.aureus can cause “painful skin and soft tissue conditions such as boils, scalded-skin syndrome, and impetigo. More serious forms of S.aureus infection can progress to bacterial pneumonia and bacteria in the bloodstream—both of which can be fatal.” (source) Not fun. 🙁
When Penicillin was first introduced in the 1940’s, it was effective at treating S.aureus among a myriad of other infections. It’s use was widespread and Penicillin was marketed as a “Wonder Drug” that everyone should be taking.
Unfortunately, In the late 1940’s, however, we began to see forms of S.aureus that had become resistant to penicillin (source)…
But wait! In the early 1950’s, due to the declining effectiveness of our wonder drug Penicillin… a new drug was released, Methicillin… and all was right with the world again!
Until it wasn’t.
It took Mr. Aureus a mere decade to mutate and build up his super powers against this new drug…
Are you guys beginning to see a pattern?
Now that this form of bacteria has become so hard to treat, we have to bring out the big guns. These “big guns” (antibiotic drugs like Vancomycin) are pretty effective at treating MRSA infections… for now… but unfortunately come with a costly toll, since they have plenty of associated side effects, including (but not limited to…) respiratory and cardiac complications, gastrointestinal upset (putting it mildly), and (the most troublesome issue I’ve seen…) can cause Major kidney damage.
It’s likely that you or someone you know has been affected by this increasingly common superbug. According to the CDC, about 2 in every 100 people carries MRSA, and unfortunately, due to misinformation about antibiotic use and sanitation, this number is growing. (source)
C-Diff (Clostridium Difficile)
The C. difficile bacterium is relative to tetanus and botulism… it has two forms, an active, infectious form that can’t survive in the environment for prolonged periods, and a nonactive, “noninfectious” form, called a spore, that can survive in the environment for prolonged periods. (source)
Although spores don’t directly cause infection, they transform into the active, infectious form when ingested. (ewww.)
The C. diff bacteria can cause a condition called “C-Diff Colitis”, which is really what I’m referring to when I mention “C-Diff”.
I have some pretty terrifying tales from my early years in nursing regarding the lovely C-Diff! I will not go into detail, but let me be frank… this is a superbug you really want to avoid. In my opinion, it’s one of the worst ones out there… it comes with frequent (Really frequent) runs to the bathroom (let’s just leave it at that), and it’s incredibly tough to treat. Often times I will see patients back several times for a recurring struggle with the same infection.
Serious complications of C. difficile colitis include dehydration, rupture of the colon, and spread of infection to the abdominal cavity or body. Severe infection is life-threatening.
C-Diff is commonly caused by overuse of antibiotics, yet, oddly enough, we use antibiotics to treat C-Diff (I know, it’s a little strange!).
Needless to say… Superbugs are a big problem.
I should mention as well, that on top of them being physically costly, they can be very financially costly (even if you have insurance). The “big gun” antibiotics that are needed to treat these guys cost Big bucks, besides the fact that they often require multiple rounds of antibiotics to treat the infection fully.
Often times, even though a patient may be rid of symptoms of a superbug infection, they will still be carriers, which means they still have the bacteria (it’s just chillin’ for a bit), and can pass it on to other unsuspecting friends and family members…
Have I sufficiently freaked you out?! 😉
Fear not friends!! There are things we can do to protect ourselves!
5 Ways to Reduce your Risk of Getting a Superbug!
#1 Wash your hands
(*but not with antibacterial soaps)
Numero Uno on the list is the all time classic… Wash Your Hands! It’s so simple, but it really does make a difference. (Especially in relation to C-Diff!)
Why do I say “No antibacterial soaps”?
Well, experts in the field of all things antibacterial and such believe that antibacterial soaps are causing a similar effect in the world of bugs as antibiotics are (remember Mr. Aureus and his resistance to penicillin?) In fact, there have been several studies done that prove just that! Like this one in the Oxford Journal of medicine. And this more recent one that found that triclosan actually promotes the growth of S.Aureus in nasal cavities.
It’s thought that antibacterial agents like Triclosan (the most common culprit), are leaving us at an increased risk for thriving superbugs… either left in tact on the skin, or an army built from the constant assault on them.
Regardless of the cause, please, say adieu to your soaps with added antibacterial agents! All that’s needed is a simple soap and some water to wash the germs away.
…I know there are differing thoughts on hand washing and such… my husband swears he has an improved immune system because he hardly ever washed his hands growing up (ehem.) But the fact remains the same, effective hand washing has been proven to reduce the risk of getting (and Spreading) infection and saves lives.
Wash your hands, scrub scrub scrub (I mean, like Really scrub)… for At Least 20 seconds (It’ll feel like forever at first, but you can hum a little tune to yourself to make the time go by faster 😉 )… make sure you get between your fingers and wash up higher around your wrists/forearms if you can too! If you need more direction, here are the official CDC recommendations for hand washing.
Need some tips for a better soap solution? Check out my simple (and inexpensive!) recipe for DIY Foaming Handsoap.
#2 Boost your immunity
Seems like another no-brainer right? Well, hold on to your horses, ’cause it’s about to get crazy folks.
I know I just mentioned that you want to wash your hands to get rid of bugs… but now I’m going to talk about ways you can increase your immunity by eating them! (not the literal kind of course, I’m not totally nuts!)
You may or may not have heard that there is a huge link between our immune systems and the bacteria that are found in our guts. (Haven’t heard this yet? Check out this article.)
The thought is this… increase the “good guys” and let them work for you to battle the “bad guys”.
Obvious ways to increase your army of good guys is to take a probiotic, or to consume probiotic-rich foods & beverages. I’m sure you are familiar with yogurt as a nutritional way to get some healthy bacteria, but there are actually several other options. Fermented foods (like sauerkraut & lacto-fermented pickles), Kombucha, & kefir (just to name a few) are also really rich in probiotics.
I’m not going to go into too much depth here so we don’t get too far off track, but by making sure you are feeding the good guys in your gut, you are essentially increasing your immunity against the bad guys.
Besides probiotics, I’ll mention another really crazy notion… eat more dirt.
(Woah, Sarah, you have seriously lost it!)… hang with me people!
I am not suggesting you go outside and take a handful of the ground and stuff your face… no no no. Please do not do that… What I Am suggesting, is perhaps a look into the benefits of incorporating soil-based organisms into your diet… doesn’t that sound a little more pleasant? Soil-Based Organisms. hmm… 😉 Are you still with me?!
I have to give Heather Dessinger (aka Mommypotamus) total credit for introducing me to this amazing (and totally science-based) idea in her article appropriately titled “Dirt: The Missing Superfood”. She has plenty of links to the science behind this idea, so you should definitely check it out.
I truly believe working With beneficial bacteria to increase our immunity is the way to go. This along with other healthy habits which will help to support a healthy immune system like getting adequate sleep, lowering stress, living an active lifestyle, eating a nutrient-dense diet, etc are ways to decrease your risk of being susceptible to superbugs!
#3 Avoid factory-farmed, antibiotic-fed meat
Again, the misuse and overuse of antibiotics has created an unfortunate situation for us.
Part of the reason bacteria are becoming drug resistant, is because farm animals are fed antibiotics to promote growth. Yeah, you read that right, they give antibiotics to livestock to fatten ’em up… but let’s stay on topic here people!
Besides giving Bessy a little added girth, factory-farmed animals are also given antibiotics to treat illness in the animals due to unsanitary living & feeding situations.
The problem is really two-fold… for one thing, the animals receiving the antibiotics are a sort of petri dish allowing superbugs to mutate and build up their defenses. The problem is compounded because the antibiotics are also passed along to you when you eat this meat (you are what your meat eats, after all! 😉 ). And again, overuse of antibiotics has been proven to lead to a production of superbugs…
The solution to this is so very simple. Buy grass-fed, pastured, not-routinely-fed-antibiotics meat (from a local farmer, if possible, to support your local economy and environment!).
We buy our meat from local farmers through our co-op, and there are likely several available options for you to choose from as well. If you are not sure how to find local farmers where you can get meat from, you can start here at localharvest.org, or join a co-op in your area through locallygrown.net.
…or, if you don’t have anything local, or would just prefer the ease of having great meat delivered straight to your door, I highly recommend US Wellness Meats. We’ve ordered from them, and have been very pleased with the quality of the meat as well as the customer service received.
#4 Take pharmaceutical antibiotics only as a last resort
Am I saying avoid antibiotics at all cost? No I am not. Only asking you to please consider whether or not it is truly a necessity… whether your “need” for antibiotics is really warranted, or if you could recover with just a little R&R and some chicken soup.
Not trying to put too much pressure on you, but your choice to take an antibiotic affects more than just yourself. Superbugs didn’t build up their super powers after just one battle after all… it’s been a war with many contributors.
Make sure you check out my article on Natural Antibiotics for some great tips on how to naturally fight infection (there are some Serious infection fighters in that list that are inexpensive and are very effective!).
If you are unsure of whether or not an antibiotic is appropriate (or if you can “tough it out” for a little while to full recovery), it’s always a good idea to discuss with your medical practitioner of choice. A good practitioner should weigh all of the information given, and will advise appropriately, rather than just handing out antibiotic scripts like candy.
Just for fun, let’s discuss a few reasons for taking an antibiotic that are not appropriate:
- “I don’t have time to be sick.”
- “The doctor thinks I probably have a viral infection, but he’s gonna give me an antibiotic ‘just in case’.”
- “My daughter’s sick, and I always get sick after her, I’m gonna just take an antibiotic as a precaution.”
Okay, so hopefully your physician would never give an antibiotic “as a precaution”, but I have personally been witness to this craziness, so I figured it was worth mentioning!
Unfortunately not all physicians and medical practitioners are educated alike, and if you’ve spent any time in a waiting room lately, you’re probably aware of the fact that they are also really busy… some of them, in fact, may be too busy to get caught up to date with the latest research available on superbugs… so that’s why it’s really important to be informed about such matters, and be proactive for your own health… and the future of your loved ones’ health!
Hooray for being an informed and proactive patient! 😉
#5 Stay away from hospitals (if at all possible)
Okay, so I don’t know how to put this nicely… hospitals are breeding grounds for all things superbuggy.
Imagine them casually looking up at you with their twitching antennas as you walk through the doors, crawling on the walls, and scattering across the floor like roaches. Vivid enough?
Guess where people who have superbug infections go?
Yes, my dears… you’ve guessed it… they head straight for the hospital. And hospital-acquired infections (they actually track them because there are so many!) are on the rise.
Obviously I don’t want to instill an unhealthy fear in you, because if you need to go to the hospital… you NEED to go to the hospital. And, if you must, I simply want you to be mindful of how to protect yourself while you are there, whether you are there as a patient or visitor.
Many hospitals enlist the aid of all kinds of chemical agents to clean and rid rooms, beds, etc of the possibility of passing along special parting gifts from the previous inhabitants. And, for the most part, this process is very effective, so no need to worry loves… but undoubtedly, nooks and crannies can get missed, so if you’re at the hospital, best to remember you are at the hospital, and not make yourself too cozy 😉
Another way you can protect yourself and your loved ones is to be an advocate for best practices in preventing the spread of infection. If you are a patient, and happen to notice that your medical practitioner or nurses are not washing their hands prior to providing direct personal care (meaning touching you or other things in your room), then they are unfortunately putting you at risk.
A simple request is all that’s needed (no need to be condescending, nurses and doctors are human after all, and sometimes forget…)
Saying something like “hey, would you mind washing your hands before you do that?” should be sufficient… if it’s not, then there are ways you can escalate your request (heaven forbid it should get that complicated!).
And, of course, in similar fashion, you can be an advocate for your loved ones!
How can you do this? Again, by making sure your their medical team is following proper protocol for hand washing and garb (if they should be wearing masks/gowns/gloves/etc.). And, by making sure you are doing the same!
Side note: If you are visiting someone in the hospital that happens to be being treated for a superbug infection, you can absolutely protect yourself by putting on a gown and gloves prior to entering the room (and make sure you remove said garments before leaving the room). Obviously please ask the nurse about all of this before just grabbing for stuff, but it should not be a problem!
Do you feel more empowered about reducing your risk of getting a superbug now? Have you got any questions? I’m all ears, just hit me up in the comments!