Overview

VRE stands for vancomycin-resistant enterococcus. It’s an infection with bacteria that are resistant to the antibiotic called vancomycin.

Enterococcus is a type of bacteria that normally lives in the intestines and the female genital tract. It usually doesn’t make us sick. However, sometimes it can cause infections in the:

  • bloodstream
  • urinary tract
  • brain
  • heart valves

VRE can also cause infections in open wounds.

Vancomycin is an antibiotic that doctors sometimes use to treat enterococci infections. Strains of enterococci that have become resistant to vancomycin are called VRE. Resistance means vancomycin can no longer kill these bacteria.

VRE infections typically affect people who are already sick and in the hospital. These infections can be hard to treat because doctors have fewer options that are effective against the resistant bacteria. Some VRE infections may be life-threatening.

Symptoms

People who carry VRE in their intestines and genital tract often don’t show symptoms. If you get sick from VRE, you might have these symptoms:

  • fever
  • general sick feeling
  • fast heart rate
  • redness, swelling, or pain in your body
  • chills

Causes

Most VRE infections happen in people who are in the hospital. People who are infected often have a serious illness or weakened immune system.

You’re more likely to become infected with VRE if you:

  • were treated for a long period of time with vancomycin or other antibiotics, such as penicillin or gentamicin
  • have a serious illness such as kidney disease or a blood disorder
  • spent time in the hospital, especially if you received antibiotics while you were there
  • have a weakened immune system
  • had surgery, such as to your abdomen or chest
  • have a medical device that needs to stay in for a long time, such as a urinary catheter
  • are 60 years or older, especially if you’re in a nursing home or long-term care facility

How it’s transmitted

Most VRE infections are transmitted in hospitals. The bacteria often spread when a doctor or other healthcare worker touches an infected person, surface, or medical equipment and then doesn’t wash their hands properly before touching another patient.

VRE does not spread through the air like the flu and some other bacterial infections.

How it’s diagnosed

The doctor takes a sample of blood, urine, pus, or other fluid from the infected area. The sample is sent to a lab to be tested for VRE.

Treatment

VRE doesn’t always need to be treated. If you have enterococci in your body but they’re not causing an active infection, you don’t need treatment.

Active VRE infections are treated with an antibiotic that’s not vancomycin. Your doctor can take a culture of the bacteria and have it tested in a laboratory to see which antibiotic might work best.

Researchers are working to develop new types of antibiotics that treat VRE.

Prevention

Healthcare workers can prevent VRE by keeping all surfaces and medical equipment sanitized. They should wash their hands with soap and water before working with each new patient. They should also wear disposable gloves. If your doctor or nurse doesn’t wash up or wear gloves, ask what hygiene measures they’ve taken to protect your health.

You can also prevent VRE by practicing good hygiene if someone in your home is infected. Follow these tips:

  • Wash your hands often with soap and water or use an alcohol-based hand sanitizer, especially after you use the toilet and before you handle food. Also wash your hands every time you come into contact with the person who is infected.
  • Disinfect surfaces such as countertops and sinks that may have been contaminated with VRE.
  • Wash dishes and utensils in warm, soapy water. Put bed linens and towels in the washing machine on hot.
  • If you have to come into contact with open wounds or bodily fluids, always wear gloves.

If you have a catheter, get it removed as soon as you no longer need it. The longer it stays in your body, the greater your risk of infection becomes.

If you do have VRE, you can help prevent transmission to others by letting your doctor know. Hospitals can use special precautions to help prevent the infection from spreading to other patients.

Outlook

Your outlook depends on what type of infection you have and your health in general. VRE can be somewhat challenging to treat because it’s resistant to vancomycin. However, other antibiotics can treat the infection.