Eight Ways to Protect Yourself from Superbugs

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Everyone is at risk of becoming infected by drug-resistant bacteria, especially as some have begun to appear outside of hospitals in the general community.

So how worried should you be?

FRONTLINE asked three infectious disease doctors what we wanted to know: what the risks are, how to protect yourself, and what questions to ask when a loved one is in the hospital.

Dr. Sean Elliott is the medical director of infection prevention at the University of Arizona Health Network

Dr. Brad Spellberg is an infectious diseases specialist at Harbor-UCLA Medical Center

Dr. Wendy Stead is an infectious diseases specialist at Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center in Boston

We condensed their advice into eight handy tips to help keep bugs at bay.

Of course, none of this substitutes for actual medical advice. For serious concerns, always consult your doctor.

1. Don’t Panic

Everyone may be at risk, but the chances of catching a drug-resistant bug outside of the hospital are small for most. “For the average healthy person walking down the street?  Those organisms are not much of a threat,” Stead says.

“The first principle is to try to live a healthy lifestyle to reduce the need to be in the hospital” where you are more likely to encounter these bugs, Spellberg says. Keep your home and work space clean. Be aware of the food you eat: Wash fruits and vegetables carefully and cook other food properly to reduce your chance of coming into contact with harmful bacteria.

2. Know What to Look For

How do you know if you have a superbug?

“You don’t.  And your doctor won’t either, at least at first,” Spellberg said. “The infections caused by antibiotic-resistant bacteria do not cause different symptoms than infections caused by antibiotic-susceptible infections.”

While it’s impossible to give broad advice about so many different kinds of bacteria — and if you’re concerned, you should call your doctor first — there are some signs that an illness might be more serious. “In general, fevers, if they’re accompanied by shaking chills, if they’re getting worse instead of better, that would suggest there’s a bacterial process,” Elliott said.

With community-acquired MRSA, many people first notice a skin infection or boil that becomes larger and more painful, Stead says.

But if you do suspect such an infection, don’t rush to the emergency room, where you might be exposed to other bugs or infect others. Call your primary-care doctor first for advice.

3. Wash Your Hands with Soap and Water. Really Wash Them.

Doctors say they cannot recommend this enough.

“Wash your hands regularly and religiously in the normal times that you would think you should wash them,” Stead says. “Give it a good amount of time” — about 15 seconds — “scrubbing hands thoroughly, not just in and out of the water.”

Turn off the faucet using a paper towel.

Alcohol-based hand-sanitizers are handy too, but remember that one bug, C.Diff, is resistant to that as well. But it does respond to soap and water. So Wash. Your. Hands.

4. Be Careful with the Antibacterial Soap

The FDA hasn’t determined whether these soaps are more effective than regular soap, and some doctors don’t recommend using them. “You do not need to take ‘antibacterial’ soaps for routine use,” Spellberg says. “There may be specific medical circumstances that warrant special antibacterial cleansers, but these should be prescribed by your physician.”

“A lot of the antibacterial soaps are more drying to the skin than would be a simple soap,” Elliott says. “So the more that we break down our skin barriers the higher the risk of getting superimposed bacterial. The real key is the soap and water and the physical action  — and keeping hands moisturized. “

5. Ask Your Doctors to Wash Their Hands

“It is every patient’s right to have every health-care provider entering the room to have clean hands,” Elliott says. “We’re supposed to do it, we mandate 100 percent hand- hygiene compliance, but the reality is that doesn’t happen,” he says.

Some hospitals even make health-care providers wear buttons encouraging patients to ask them if they’ve washed their hands. Even if they’re buttonless, you should feel free to ask your providers about it.

“Really — we are not offended by that,” Stead says.

6. Get A Flu Shot

“When people get influenza, they actually become at higher risk as they recover for complicating bacterial infections,” Stead says, because people with weakened immune systems are more vulnerable to other bugs.

“Community-acquired MRSA is a big risk in patients who have recently had influenza,” she notes. “They get influenza and they start to get better, and then the staph comes in. … That’s life threatening.  They wouldn’t have been at risk for that if they hadn’t had influenza in the first place.”

7. Ask Whether You Need that Antibiotic

Doctors sometimes feel pressured by patients or their families to prescribe an antibiotic, even if it’s not necessary. Don’t assume you need one — antibiotics don’t work on viral infections like colds or the flu. If your doctor does recommend one, ask whether you really need it.

“Using antibiotics does kill off non-resistant bacteria in your body and makes you likely to acquire antibiotic-resistant bacteria in their place,” Spellberg says. “If your doctor says that they think your infection is probably caused by bacteria and that you do need an antibiotic, ask, ‘Do I need a broadly active antibiotic, or can I take a narrower antibiotic?’ The broader the antibiotic, the more damage to your normal bacteria can be caused. We want physicians to try to prescribe antibiotics that are as narrow as possible for a given infection.”

8. Advocate for Loved Ones in the Hospital

One of the ways drug-resistant bacteria spreads in hospital is through tubes inserted in the body, such as catheters. If someone you care about is on such a device, don’t be afraid to ask doctors whether they still need it, and when the tubes can come out.

“Hospitals are much more aggressive about removing things if they’re not needed anymore,” Stead says. “But having patients be aware and try to get things out too is good.”

“Every day that decision needs to be made: Do these things need to stay in or do they need to come out?” Elliott says. The key, he says, is “empowering patients or their advocates to stand up for their health-care needs.”

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