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Microscopic view of disease

Types of Superbugs

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While antibiotics are generally effective at treating the bacteria that cause infections, there are certain strains of bacteria or “superbugs” that have developed resistance. Antibiotics that have worked in the past to cure infections created by bacteria do not have any effect on ridding the body of these types of bacteria. Superbugs have developed through the process of mutation by changing a gene within themselves at some point in their development and evolving into resilient strains.

There are many reasons this has occurred, but the main reason is the use of antibiotics in the past. These superbugs have developed as a result of antibiotics being used to treat viral infections that they should not have been used for or because people failed to take the entire dosage for the entire time period that the antibiotics were prescribed for. Additionally, antibiotics in animal feed, used to stimulate growth in cows and chicken, may contribute to spreading resistant bacteria to humans. Infection from superbugs most notably occurs in hospitals, where cleanliness plays a major role in keeping these germs contained.

The federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) has identified 18 top threats to the U.S. from drug resistant bacteria. The most serious superbugs are:

Clostridium Difficile (CDIFF or C. difficile)

This superbug causes an inflammation of the colon known as colitis, resulting in diarrhea, and is responsible for 14,000 deaths a year in the U.S., mostly among elderly hospital patients. These patients often have been treated extensively with antibiotics for other conditions, with the side effect of killing off protective bacteria in the body. C. difficile can sometimes be treated by discontinuing all antibiotics. The bacteria is found in the feces and spread through hand or equipment contact.

Carbapenem-Resistant Enterobacteriaceae (CRE)

The Enterobacteriaceae are a class of germs like Escherichia coli (E. coli) that normally live in the gut but can cause serious infections elsewhere in the body. The CRE superbug strain is resistant to nearly every antibiotic, including the carbapenems, the last-resort drug. Almost half of patients with bloodstream infections from CRE will die. Typically, patients in long-term care and using ventilators, catheters or other equipment are at risk but CRE has also been spread by the duodenoscope, a piece of medical equipment inserted down the throat to relieve blockages in the liver.

Neisseria gonorrhoeae

This bacteria, the cause of the sexually transmitted disease gonorrhea, has steadily out-evolved antibiotic treatments; only cephalosporin drugs remain effective, and some of those drugs appear to be losing effectiveness. The CDC reports 246,000 drug-resistant gonorrhea infections a year.

Among the superbugs the CDC ranks in the second tier of serious threats:

Methicillin-Resistant Staphylococcus Aureus (MRSA)

Staphylococcus aureus lives on the skin and in the nose of every human being and is the most common reason for wound infections in hospitals, where it can spread through hand contact. The CDC reports that hospitals in the U.S. have cut down the rate of staph superbug infection through better hygiene but risks are increasing in community settings such as schools and daycare centers.

Drug-Resistant Streptococcus Pneumoniae

The Streptococcus pneumoniae bug is the major cause of bacterial pneumonia and meningitis in the U.S. so drug resistance is a very serious concern. The CDC reports 1.2 million drug-resistant infections a year.

Drug-Resistant Tuberculosis

TB is rare in the U.S. but a frequent cause of death worldwide so the emergence of drug-resistant strains of the TB-causing bacteria Mycobacterium tuberculosis (M. tuberculosis) is very troubling. First-line drugs typically treat the disease, but in some cases, multiple drugs have had little effect.

Drug-Resistant Non-Typhoidal Salmonella

The food-borne Salmonella bacteria causes 1.2 million cases yearly of diarrhea, cramps and stomach ailments in the U.S. Most patients recover after a week without treatment but in serious cases, the infection spread through the body and must be treated with antibiotics. Each year in recent years, the CDC has reported several disease outbreaks due to multi-drug-resistant Salmonella.

This article is not intended as medical advice. Please consult your doctor for answers to your medical questions.


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