Bad Bugs

Drug-resistant bacteria aren't a future threat. They're among us right now, sickening and killing people in our communities. Here are some of the worst culprits.

Clostridium difficile (C. Diff):  causes deadly diarrhea mostly in people who are recently or presently taking antibiotics for several weeks or longer. C. Diff occurs because long-term antibiotic use destroys the good bacteria in our bodies that protect against illness. C. Diff is responsible for 250,000 hospitalizations and 14,000 deaths in the US each year. (Image courtesy CDC / Janice Carr)

Carbapenem-resistant Enterobacteriaceae (CRE):  Bacteria that are resistant to nearly all antibiotics and spread easily. Half of those who get bloodstream infections from CRE die.  About 9,300 hospital infections occur each year from CRE. (Image courtesy CDC / James Archer)

Multi-drug resistant (MDR) Neisseria Gonorrhea: The bacteria behind the well-known venereal disease gonorrhea is showing resistance to the antibiotics used to treat it. Already, about one third of gonorrhea infections are resistant to antibiotics. If these resistant bacteria spread, the disease will soon be untreatable. (Image courtesy CDC / James Archer)

Extended-spectrum B-Lactamase-producing Enterobacteriaceae (ESBL): ESBL are bacteria that are just one step away from becoming CRE (see above), which will make them resistant to nearly all antibiotics. (Image courtesy CDC / James Archer)

Multidrug-resistant (MDR) Salmonella: In the U.S., salmonella is popularly associated with food poisoning, but throughout much of the world, it's also known as the cause of typhoid fever. Salmonella causes about 100,000 illnesses in the US each year; MDR salmonella infections are more severe. (Image courtesy CDC / James Archer)

Methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus (MRSA): Perhaps the most infamous drug-resistant bacteria, MRSA causes skin and wound infections, pneumonia, and bloodstream infections. (Image courtesy CDC / James Archer)

MDR Pseudomonas: MDR Pseudomonas causes healthcare-associated pneumonia and blood stream infections; some strains are resistant to nearly all antibiotics. (Image courtesy CDC / James Archer)

Using Antibiotics Can Be Dangerous

Older New Jerseyans remember the "bad old days" before antibiotics. It was a time when simple infections were often fatal, even to people who'd previously been in perfect health. Antibiotics, the drugs we use today to treat infections caused by bacteria (but not infections caused by viruses), didn't exist before the 20th century. They weren't widely available until the 1940s.

We may be soon be returning to the "bad old days," because antibiotics are losing their power. Overuse of antibiotics has increased the growth of drug-resistant germs, making many antibiotics ineffective. If this happens, some aspects of life will return to the way they were before antibiotics existed.

  • A simple cut of the finger could lead to a life-threatening infection.
  • Common surgery, such as hip and knee replacements, would be riskier because of the danger of infection.
  • Dialysis patients could develop untreatable bloodstream infections.
  • Life-saving treatments that affect the immune system, such as chemotherapy and organ transplants, could potentially cause more harm than good.

How do we know this is happening? Many bacteria no longer respond to antibiotics. Infections with resistant bacteria are already happening — MRSA, pronounced "mersa," is one infamous type of resistant bacteria that has received a great deal of media coverage. These infections are becoming more common. According to the CDC, antibiotic resistance causes more than two million illnesses and 23,000 deaths every year in the U.S.

What You Can Do
  • Take the antibiotic exactly as the doctor prescribes. Do not skip doses. Complete the treatment. It's important to eliminate your entire bacterial infection, even if you already feel better or no longer have symptoms.
  • Do not share or use leftover antibiotics. Taking the wrong medicine may delay correct treatment and allow the bad bacteria to multiply.
  • Don’t ask for antibiotics when your doctor thinks you do not need them. Taking antibiotics when you don’t need them can do more harm than good.
  • Decrease the amount of antibiotics you consume through the food you eat by buying meat that is labeled “raised without antibiotics.”
  • Practice good hand hygiene and get the recommended vaccines to prevent infections.
Why The Urgency?
  • The way we use antibiotics today in one patient directly impacts how effective they will be tomorrow in another patient; in other words, the way you use antibiotics today affects all of us in the future.
  • Antibiotic resistance is not just a problem for the person with the infection; some resistant bacteria have the potential to spread to others, creating additional threats to public health.
  • People around the world are dying now from antibiotic resistant bacterial infections, and the number of deaths is growing.
  • Since it will be many years before new antibiotics are available to treat some resistant infections, we need to make the best use of antibiotics that are currently available.
Last Reviewed: 5/16/2016