Superbug. Sounds like an amped-up villain the whole comic universe will have to unite to defeat.

At times — like when the headlines announce a baffling outbreak that threatens a major medical center — that description seems eerily accurate.

But what does current science have to say about the powers and vulnerabilities of these bacteria? And where are we in the fight to control these microscopic yet seemingly invincible foes?

Keep reading to learn more about superbugs, the threats they pose, and how to protect yourself from them.

Superbug is another name for bacteria or fungi that have developed the ability to resist commonly prescribed medications.

According to the 2019 Antibiotic Resistance Threat Report, published by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), more than 2.8 million drug-resistant infections happen every year in the United States, and more than 35,000 of them are fatal.

The CDC’s report lists 18 bacteria and fungi that endanger human health, classifying them as either:

  • urgent
  • serious
  • concerning threats

They include:

Urgent threats

Serious threats

Concerning threats

For some people, being infected with a superbug causes no symptoms at all. When healthy people carry germs without being symptomatic, they can infect vulnerable people without even realizing it.

N. gonorrhoeae, for example, is a sexually transmitted bacteria that often goes undetected because it doesn’t present symptoms right away.

Left untreated, however, gonorrhea can damage your nervous system and heart. It can cause infertility and ectopic pregnancies, which can be life threatening.

Recently, N. gonorrhoeae has evolved to withstand treatment by cephalosporin, an antibiotic that was once the gold standard for killing the organism.

When superbug infections do present symptoms, they vary widely depending on which organism is attacking you. Common symptoms of infectious disease include:

  • fever
  • fatigue
  • diarrhea
  • coughing
  • body aches

Superbug infection symptoms look the same as the symptoms of other infections. The difference is that the symptoms do not respond to antibiotics and antifungal medications.

Anyone can get a superbug infection, even people who are young and healthy. You might be at an increased risk for infection if your immune system has been weakened by a chronic illness or by treatment for cancer.

If you work in a healthcare facility or have recently received treatment in a hospital, outpatient, or rehab facility, you may have come into contact with bacteria that are more prevalent in healthcare settings.

If you’re employed in a veterinary care facility or in the agricultural industry, you may be exposed to superbugs in the course of your work.

Some superbugs are foodborne, so you may be at risk for infection if you have eaten contaminated foods or products from animals that were treated with antibiotics.

If you have a superbug infection, your treatment will depend on which bacteria or fungi are causing the infection.

Your doctor may send a specimen from your body to the lab so that laboratory technicians can determine which antibiotic or antifungal medication is effective against the superbug that’s making you sick.

New science in the counterattack against superbugs

Drug-resistant infection research is an urgent worldwide priority. These are two of many developments in the battle against these bugs.

  • Researchers at the Swiss University of Lausanne have found 46 drugs that keep Streptococcus pneumoniae from entering a state called “competence,” in which it can grab genetic material floating in its environment and use it to evolve resistance. The drugs, which are nontoxic, FDA-approved compounds, allow bacterial cells to live but prevent them from generating the peptides that trigger the evolutionary competence state. So far, these drugs have worked in mouse models and in human cells under lab conditions. The research link provided above includes an explanatory video.
  • Research conducted at the University of Queensland, Australia has shown that 30 compounds containing silver, zinc, manganese, and other metals were effective against at least one bacterial strain, one of which was the superbug methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus (MRSA). Reports indicate 23 of the 30 compounds hadn’t been previously reported.
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As menacing as superbugs sound, there are ways to protect yourself and your family from becoming infected with one. The CDC recommends that you:

  • wash your hands thoroughly
  • get your family vaccinated
  • use antibiotics wisely
  • take special precautions around animals
  • practice safe food preparation
  • practice sex with a condom or other barrier method
  • seek medical care quickly if you suspect an infection
  • keep wounds clean
  • take good care of yourself if you have a chronic illness

If your doctor is treating you for an infection but your symptoms do not improve after you finish your medication, you should follow up with your doctor right away.

Healthcare professionals at Mayo Clinic recommend that you visit your doctor if:

  • you’re having trouble breathing
  • you’ve been coughing longer than a week
  • you have a bad headache, neck pain and stiffness, along with a fever
  • you’re an adult with a fever over 103°F (39.4°C)
  • you develop a sudden problem with your vision
  • you have a rash or swelling
  • you’ve been bitten by an animal

Superbugs are bacteria or fungi that have developed the ability to withstand commonly prescribed drugs.

A superbug can infect anyone, but some people may have a higher risk for infection because they’ve been exposed to superbugs in a medical facility or have a weakened immune system because of a chronic illness.

People who work in veterinary facilities or around animals, especially in agribusiness, are also at greater risk.

It’s possible to carry a superbug without having symptoms. If you do have symptoms, they’ll vary depending on which infection you’ve contracted.

If your symptoms don’t respond to treatment, it may be because you’ve been infected by a drug-resistant superbug.

You can protect yourself from infection by:

  • practicing good hygiene
  • using antibiotics carefully
  • getting vaccinated
  • getting medical help quickly if you think you might have an infection