Horror stories always get people’s attention. Who could resist reading sensational news reports like “Invasion of the Super Bugs—Antibiotics Don’t Help!” Pretty scary, right? Unfortunately, it’s true. New strains of bacteria that ordinary antibiotics can’t kill are spreading rapidly throughout the world, leaving critically ill and dying people in their wake. Like Superman, these “super bugs” often seem to be invulnerable. That’s why medical researchers are urgently searching for the equivalent of Kryptonite to stop super bugs in their tracks.

What happened to create these super bugs? Where are they found? And how can you avoid them?

Doctors have a wide assortment of antibiotic drugs that they can use to treat people who develop infections. But sometimes an antibiotic that has always worked for a certain type of bacterial infection suddenly stops working in patient after patient. That means the bacteria have changed (“mutated”) in some way that makes them resistant to the antibiotic. This problem is known as antibiotic resistance. Usually—but not always—switching to another antibiotic will help to cure the infection.

Not all antibiotic-resistant bacteria are super bugs. Bacteria that rate this title are resistant not just to one or two antibiotics, but to almost every strong antibiotic currently available, including methicillin, oxacillin, penicillin, and amoxicillin. That leaves doctors with only one or two super powerful antibiotics to try. Even when those antibiotics work, it can take weeks or months to produce any improvement, during which time super bugs often cause major complications or even death.

Antibiotics still save many lives, but overuse of antibiotics is costing some lives. That’s mostly because antibiotics have been prescribed too frequently over time. For years, doctors prescribed penicillin for common ailments—sore throats, chest colds, and coughs—even though antibiotics don’t work for these virus infections. Doctors know better now, but people who are sick enough to visit a doctor often demand “something” to help them feel better fast. If that something is an unneeded antibiotic, taking it may have the unfortunate result that bacteria in your body will develop resistance to the effects of that antibiotic. Then if you get an infection that really does require antibiotic treatment, you may find that the drug won’t work for you anymore.

Why do hospitals have so many super bugs? Because that’s where the sick people with infections are. There are three reasons why super bugs such as MRSA, VRE, and C. difficile have made hospitals their favorite home:

  • A majority of hospitalized patients are given antibiotics, which increases the chance that “good” bacteria will be killed, while “bad” bacteria like C. difficile will survive and be passed on to other patients.
  • People who are sick enough to need hospitalization often have weakened immune systems that can’t fight infections, so they’re more likely to catch any super bug that comes their way.
  • Many healthcare workers don’t wash their hands well enough or often enough. That means super bugs living anywhere in a hospital may be quickly transmitted from patient to patient, either on healthcare workers’ hands or patients’ bed rails, other surfaces in the patients’ rooms, food trays, medical equipment, and more.

Studies show that transmission of MRSA, VRE, and C. difficile from one patient to another occurs mostly via the hands of healthcare workers. Observational studies of hand washing in numerous hospitals around the country show that healthcare workers wash or sanitize their hands less than 50 percent of the time.