How to avoid antibiotic-resistant 'superbugs'

How often do you think about your role in combating antibiotic-resistant bacteria? 

Probably not often enough, even though these “superbugs” are considered a global health threat.

According to the World Health Organization, antibiotic resistance is rising to dangerously high levels in all parts of the world. New resistance mechanisms are emerging and spreading globally, threatening our ability to treat common infectious diseases.

In 2016, the United Nations General Assembly convened a high-level meeting to discuss and raise awareness about the global threat of antibiotic resistance. This joins the other three health issues ever to be considered by the United Nations: HIV, noncommunicable diseases and Ebola.

World leaders from multiple countries have pledged to increase awareness on global antibiotic resistance. They’re also encouraging best practices among the general public, health workers and policy makers to avoid the further emergence and spread of antibiotic resistance.

What are antibiotic-resistant superbugs?

A growing list of infections – such as pneumonia, tuberculosis, blood poisoning, gonorrhea and foodborne diseases – are becoming harder and, sometimes, impossible to treat as antibiotics become less effective.

Antibiotics are designed to kill bacterial infections. But when antibiotics are overused, the bacteria can develop resistance to antibiotics and become what are commonly known as “superbugs.”

How can you be an “antibiotic steward” at your doctor’s office?

While this global problem may seem overwhelming, there are some simple ways each one of us can become an antibiotic steward to avoid the further emergence and spread of antibiotic resistance.

For example, when you’re suffering from a cold, don’t demand antibiotics from your physician. Instead, ask you physician for a recommendation on how to best treat your symptoms, which may simply involve getting lots of rest, staying hydrated, using saline nasal sprays and gargling with salt water.

One of the most common abuses of antibiotics is for treatment of respiratory symptoms that are often caused by viruses, which do not respond to antibiotics. Antibiotics only work against bacteria.

Instead of asking for prescription antibiotics, tell your physician that you’re concerned about the overuse of antibiotics and superbugs. Listen to your doctor’s recommendations to treat your symptoms.

How can you be an antibiotic steward at a restaurant or grocery store?

When eating out at a restaurant and ordering a steak dinner, ask the server if they serve antibiotic-free meat. Also keep this in mind when buying chicken, beef and pork at the grocery store and purchase those that are antibiotic-free.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, almost 80 percent of antibiotic use in the United States is for feed animals such as cows, pigs and chickens to promote growth. The FDA has recently banned the use of antibiotics for growth promotion, however antibiotic use remains high for disease prevention.

When feed animals were given antibiotics to promote growth, bacteria were exposed to low doses of antibiotics for a long time. This type of long-term exposure to antibiotics contributed  to the survival and growth of superbugs.

What are simple ways to protect yourself from bacterial infections?

Everyone has a role to play in preventing and combating antibiotic-resistance. Here are a few ways to help combat superbugs that may be lurking in everyday places.

  • At the gym: be sure to wipe down the machines and equipment before and after working out.
  • At the grocery store: use sanitizing wipes to clean the grocery cart handle.
  • On an airplane: use sanitizing wipes to clean the tray table, arm rests and seatbelts.
  • At the doctor’s office or business offices: use your own pen to sign forms instead of those  provided at the front counter.
  • At hotels: use sanitizing wipes to clean the remote control.
  • Always get your flu shot.
  • Always wash your hands for at least 20 seconds using soap and hot water after using the restroom or handling raw meat.

Making these changes on an individual level can start to reap benefits on a global level if we all work together to make a difference in the fight against superbugs.

Debra Goff is an infectious disease specialist and founding member of the Antimicrobial Stewardship Program at The Ohio State University Wexner Medical Center. She is a member of Ohio State’s One Health Antimicrobial Stewardship Program Committee and leads the research program for the Department of Pharmacy.


Live healthier and stay inspired.

Get tips from Ohio State experts right to your inbox.