Senior Safety: Superbugs

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Seniors are a particularly vulnerable demographic, as their immune systems are slowly deteriorating, which leaves them susceptible to catching illnesses. One in particular, the superbug, is so named because it describes a microbe that’s either resistant or immune to modern medicine.

What is a Superbug?

Superbugs have two definitions: the first comes from the 1970s, in reference to pollution-eating microbes; the second, the modern one, describes microbes that have evolved to combat the microbe-eliminating effects of medicine. The latter definition is the one that has patients, researchers and medical professionals most worried, for there’s not much anyone can do about- or for- superbugs other than to hope the patient has a strong enough immune system to battle it on their own.

What Kinds of Superbugs Exist?

There are plenty, but the most common names are MRSA (methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus Aureus), VRSA (vancomycin-resistant Staphylococcus Aureus), VRE (vancomycin-resistant Enterococcus), and HIV (human immunodeficiency virus.) There are more superbugs, of course, with the number constantly rising, but these are some of the most famous, most virulent strains. Each of them isn't terribly difficult to catch, but very much so to get rid of.

How Are Superbugs Caught?

In a variety of ways, but one common method seems to be through hospitalizations. Although hospitals are where you want to be in case anything goes wrong, it’s also where something can go wrong. There are a ton of germs and bacteria floating in the air, sitting on handrails and toilet seats, nestled in pillowcases, and on doctors and nurses’ hands.

One way to combat the spread of superbugs is to dress in isolation gear, such as a paper gown, medical mask/respirator, hair cover, paper slippers, and gloves. This may not always be practical, but at the very least, handwashing is top of the list for keeping clear of microbes, followed by a custom-fitted respirator (N95 is the most common, while P100 is the most effective) and gloves.

Can Superbugs be Treated?

There are nine general categories of antibiotics (with other types used by specialists for diseases like tuberculosis): Penicillins, Cephalosporins, Tetracyclines, Aminoglycosides, Macrolides, Clindamycin, Sulfonamides and trimethoprim, Metronidazole and tinidazole, and Quinolones.

A microbe like S. Aureus is usually treated with methicillin, which belongs to the class of penicillins. However, the bacteria can evolve to the point where it becomes “smarter” than the methicillin, and an alternative, such as flucloxacillin, is administered. And if that’s not successful- aka MRSA- then a radical course of action must be taken, like prescribing vancomycin and teicoplanin by infusion or injection. Because of how vancomycin and teicoplanin are given, patients have to be hospitalized to receive it.

What are the Signs to Watch Out For?

For staph, typical signs include a skin abscess that may have pus or other fluids draining at the site, warmth around the site, or fever. If the infection becomes more serious, symptoms like headaches, muscle weakness, chills, chest pain or fatigue can be present.

HIV symptoms vary from person to person, with many people not showing typical signs (e.g. fever, swollen glands, sore throat, rash, headache) and needing testing for confirmation. And something like VRE, which can manifest itself in urine, blood, heart valves, or infected wounds, presents a variety of symptoms specific to its location of infection.

Because seniors have immune systems that tend to be more susceptible to superbugs, great care and caution should be taken to prevent them as much as possible. Washing your hands, wearing gloves and donning a respirator are some of the easiest ways to combat the transmission of superbugs.