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What can you do to stop superbugs?

Superbugs develop as we use - and overuse - antibiotics. One way to stop the spread of these bacterium is to take antibiotics responsibly.
Superbugs develop as we use - and overuse - antibiotics. One way to stop the spread of these bacterium is to take antibiotics responsibly.
Photo by Gene Han/LarimdaME via Flickr Creative Commons

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If you've been following the news about the bacterial outbreak at Ronald Reagan UCLA Medical Center, you've heard that it's caused by an antibiotic-resistant bacterium Carbapenem-resistant Enterobacteriaceae,  known as "CRE."

CRE is just one of the growing number of  "superbugs" that experts say pose significant public health risks, due to their antibiotic resistance.

Read our Superbug FAQ to learn how CRE became a "superbug."

Sometimes that resistance comes about naturally, through evolution. But it's also caused by overuse of antibiotics - something we can all help stop.

I spoke with Dr. Arjun Srinivasan, associate director for healthcare-associated infection prevention programs at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), who offered a few tips:

Use antibiotics responsibly

First thing to know: The way a particular doctor prescribes, or a particular patient takes, antibiotics impacts how effective the drug is for everyone else, Srinivasan says.

So, he says,  if a doctor prescribes antibiotics to one patient and the drug breeds resistant bacteria in that person, the bacteria could then spread to other patients in the hospital, to nursing homes and to the community.

That's why, he says, patients should follow a few rules when it comes to antibiotics:

  1. When a doctor prescribes antibiotics, patients should take the full course of drugs, even though they may feel better before then. The reason? If patients don't finish the pills, and some disease-causing bacteria is left behind, they may need to resume treatment later. This could promote the spread of antibiotic-resistant properties among harmful bacteria, according to the Mayo Clinic.
  2. Again, don't stop taking the pills, and save them for another time. Leftover antibiotics may not be appropriate for other conditions, and would not be a full course of treatment, according to the Mayo Clinic.
  3. Patients shouldn't insist doctors prescribe antibiotics, if they're not needed. As the CDC explains, antibiotics cure bacterial infections, not viral infections like colds, the flu, bronchitis, or sore throats not caused by strep.

Demand clean hands

Srinivasan says there are things patients can do at the hospital, or medical office, to further prevent the spread of infection. Chief among them: Patients should always their hands – and demand their providers do the same.

Sure, it might be an awkward request to make of your doctor, but hand washing is one of the most effective ways to prevent the spread of infections.

Try a simple request like, "can you please wash your hands before you examine me?"

Ask more questions

Anytime a device is inserted into a patient's body – or a patient undergoes surgery – there's a possibility that unwelcome bacteria could enter the body.

Especially in those situations, Srinivasan says, it's important for patients to ask about the risk of infection, and what the provider is doing to reduce that risk.

For example, he says, if you have a catheter, ask a series of questions: What is it there for? How long will it be there? Is it time for it to be removed?

"A lot of it boils down to being willing to ask questions of our health care team," Srinivasan says.