Harvard Women's Health Watch

You can protect yourself against superbugs

Some simple preventive measures can keep antibiotic-resistant bacteria at bay.

washing hands superbugs
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Although the Zika virus got more publicity throughout the summer, another—and even scarier-sounding—microbe also made headlines. Dubbed a new "superbug," strains of E. coli resistant to the antibiotic colistin were found in the United States. Colistin is a drug often used when others fail to control a bacterial infection. Fortunately, the bacteria weren't resistant to other antibiotics, which cleared the infections. "Although this particular case of antibiotic resistance may not be as dire as the media made it sound, in general these increasingly high-level resistances are an enormous problem," says Dr. Sarah Fortune, professor of immunology and infectious diseases at Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health.

Why superbugs are such a problem

Like other forms of life, bacteria are always evolving to become stronger and survive longer. One of the ways they increase their chances of survival is to acquire genes that help them resist threats—including natural enemies like viruses and man-made weapons like antibiotics. These genes can spring up within a bacterium through mutations and are passed down to subsequent generations of the microbe. In addition, they can be found on rings of DNA called plasmids, which can be transmitted to other types of bacteria, enabling the resistance to spread wider and faster. The E. coli strains discovered in 2016 raised concern because they carry the colistin-resistance gene on plasmids and thus have the potential to transfer the plasmids to bacteria that are already resistant to several other antibiotics.

How worried should you be?

"It's not like folks are going out and touching things on the subway and acquiring a completely drug-resistant bacterium," Dr. Fortune says. Resistant strains are more likely to be found in hospitals and nursing homes, where people are already taking a lot of antibiotics. And even hospital-based infections are less frequent than they once were. In recent years, hospitals have stepped up their efforts to quickly identify microbes with high-level drug resistances and respond to them so their patients aren't put at risk.

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