Which Alarming Health Concerns You Can (and Can’t) Ignore

Scary medical headlines grab all the attention, but these everyday habits may be more likely to harm you.

By Teresa Dumain
Also in Reader's Digest Magazine December 2013

HEALTH FEAR: Superbugs
• WORRY MORE ABOUT: Contributing to antibiotic resistance

You’ve been hearing about MRSA for a while: Short for “methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus,” it’s an infection caused by a strain of staph bacteria that’s become resistant to common antibiotics. And if you haven’t heard about a newer family of germs on the rise in U.S. hospitals called CREs (carbapenem-resistant Enterobacteriaceae), you will soon. “These superbugs are resistant to our biggest and best drugs and may become resistant to all antibiotics,” says Aaron Milstone, MD, an infectious disease specialist at Johns Hopkins Hospital. More than two million Americans get sick from antibiotic-resistant bacteria every year, and at least 23,000 die from those infections.

That said, we do still have antibiotics to treat most superbugs, says Dr. Milstone. You may have read about instances in which people contracted MRSA while out and about in their community, but such cases are not common; the risk of infection is still much higher in a hospital setting, when you’re having surgery, for example, or receiving a medical device like a catheter. “The risk of severe disease from these bugs is also greater when patients are weak from another condition or have a compromised immune system,” says Dr. Milstone.

What’s more, there’s a lot you can do to protect yourself from superbugs, says Kristin Englund, MD, an infectious disease specialist at the Cleveland Clinic—including frequently washing hands, covering wounds well, and getting vaccinated against certain bacteria (such as pneumococcus, which can cause infections like pneumonia). These precautions have helped reduce the rate of resistant infections.

On the other hand, you’re only going to accelerate the development and spread of antibiotic-resistant bacteria if, like many Americans, you misuse antibiotics. They are the most commonly prescribed medications, but up to 50 percent of prescriptions are either unnecessary or not the best option, according to the CDC. Every time you use an antibiotic, you give bacteria in your body a chance to evolve and outsmart the medicine. Taking an antibiotic to eliminate a virus, which it is unable to do, or not taking an antibiotic for its full course worsens the problem. The bacteria can then grow and even share resistance, so the next time you need that particular antibiotic, it may not work as well, explains Dr. Englund. If you have overused or misused amoxicillin, for example, a common urinary tract infection may now need stronger meds or a combination of treatments.

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