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What is a Superbug?

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A superbug is not a specific medical condition or diagnosis. Instead, "superbug" is the colloquial term used in the media to identify a type of bacteria that has become resistant to commonly used antibiotics. Methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus (MRSA) is probably the most well known superbug, but several varieties exist.

How Does a Superbug Develop?

Any so-called superbug develops when a normal strain of bacteria becomes resistant to multiple antibiotic drugs. This resistance develops because of the overuse or misuse of antibiotics in a variety of settings, especially in medical care. Both doctors and patients are responsible for the misuse, and current practices should change in order to prevent the continued emergence of resistant superbugs.

Antibiotics are effective only against illnesses that are caused by bacteria or sometimes fungus. They are wholly ineffective against viruses, but doctors have prescribed and patients have willingly taken them to treat viral illnesses for decades.

In particular, the common cold and flu are both caused by viruses and are, therefore, not susceptible to antibiotic treatment. Yet a large number of patients expect to receive antibiotics when they are suffering from the cold or flu. This may be due to ignorance about the differences between viruses and bacteria, or it may be due to a past experience in which beginning antibiotic treatment coincided with the natural lessening of cold or flu symptoms.

Whatever the case, physicians have said that some patients literally demand a prescription for antibiotics. At the same time, some doctors have been known to diagnosis bacterial infections like strep throat without obtaining a laboratory culture to verify the presence of bacteria.

All of these things lead to the unnecessary use of antibiotics when no harmful bacteria exists.

How Does This Lead to a Superbug?

The human body is home to millions of beneficial bacteria that are present in the digestive system and in other areas at all times. Some of these bacteria help digest food, some help the blood absorb nutrients, and some actually encourage the intestinal wall to renew itself.

During treatment with antibiotics, these healthful bacteria are destroyed. If a person takes antibiotics frequently, the healthful bacteria in his body will begin to develop a resistance to the bacteria. If "bad bacteria" - such as Staphylococcus aureus - later enters the body, the healthful bacteria may transfer its antibiotic resistance to the bad bacteria.

The result is that the bad bacteria, then, cannot be easily destroyed by common antibiotics. Stronger drugs must be used to defeat the infection. Meanwhile, this now-resistant bad bacteria can be passed to others who will then have the same struggle in finding an effectual antibiotic.

Even when antibiotics are medically necessary, misusing them or not taking them properly can have the same adverse result of antibiotic resistance. To use antibiotics properly, the medication should be taken exactly as directed by the prescribing physician. The entire course should be completed even if symptoms subside early. Antibiotics should never be shared with another person since a partial course will not be sufficient to kill the infection in either person.

Superbug Strains

Methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus (MRSA) is undoubtedly the most well known superbug. It first appeared in 1961, though strains of S. aurues had shown resistance to penicillin long before this. Other resistant strains of S. aureus have appeared since the 1990s, though these are less common than MRSA.

Some strains of Streptococcus pyogenes have developed resistance to penicillin, macrolides, and beta-lactam antibiotics. Other bacteria that have shown antibiotic resistance include:

  • Escherichia coli (E. coli)
  • Gonorrhea
  • Mycobacterium tuberculosis
  • Salmonella

Each of these resistant strains can be considered a superbug, though other strains of the same bacteria are not resistant to common antibiotics. In addition to the bacteria named, a number of other antibiotic resistant superbug strains exist.

Fortunately, no bacteria have yet shown resistance to all known antibiotics. Laboratory examination of a culture from a patient's infected tissue can help doctors determine which antibiotic will be effective. In some cases, discovering an effectual antibiotic will be relatively quick, while it can take weeks or months in other infections.

During the search for an effectual antibiotic, a patient will receive supportive therapy and efforts will be made to keep the immune system functioning properly so that it can do its part to defeat the invading bacteria. A patient will probably need continuous hospital care until the appropriate antibiotic is found.

Check with your health care professional for more information. If you or anyone you know has any symptoms of a bacterial infection or may have been exposed to any communicable illness, seek professional medical help.

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