This new study is alarming, but what simple steps would a medical professional recommend we take to help our loved ones as they depart a hospital stay?
If you're a grandparent, your hands are amazing.
Your hands might be soft and warm, meant for hugging grandkids or making batches of cookies. Or maybe they're a bit more worn, bearing the scars of years of hard work. After all, they're the same hands that may have raised a family or built a house or driven across the country uphill both ways without air conditioning. Your hands carry the legacy of everything you've created in your lifetime.
But if you're a senior and were recently in the hospital, your hands might be carrying something else too.
Roughly 1 in 4 seniors leaving the hospital and going to other care facilities may be carrying superbugs on their hands, according to a new study from the University of Michigan Health System.
Superbugs, also known as multidrug-resistant organisms (MDROs), are bacteria that have grown immune to antibiotic drugs, making them incredibly hard to treat and potentially deadly.
"There are 2 million people who become infected with bacteria resistant to antibiotics," study author Dr. Lona Mody said in an interview, "and about 23,000 people die each year as a direct result of these resistant infections."
The results of the study suggest seniors picked up the superbugs while in the hospital — but the really scary thing is that while carrying the bugs on their hands doesn't necessarily mean those seniors will get sick, they can still transmit them to other people around them.
There has been a huge focus on making sure doctors, nurses, and other hospital staff have good hand hygiene, but Dr. Mody's study highlights the importance of educating and enabling patients to stay bug-free when they leave the hospital as well.
The good news: There are some really easy steps anyone who's been in the hospital recently can take to protect themselves and others.
The new study focused on seniors going to care facilities, but these rules could apply to anyone who has stayed in a hospital recently. So without further ado:
1. The best thing is also the simplest: Wash your hands with soap and water.
While this might seem obvious, there's actually a specific twist on this piece of advice based on the results of Dr. Mody's study — it turns out that while doctors and nurses already have to regularly wash their hands, most hospitals don't ask the patients to do the same.
Hospitals should do this! No matter how scary a superbug may be, a good scrub with soap and water will usually eliminate any potential threat before it gets too far.
Dr. Mody also recommends that hospitals pay attention to the layout of a patient's room, which could make it difficult for them to get to a sink. If hospitals and care facilities work with patients to figure out how to make it easy for everyone to practice good hand hygiene, we can prevent these superbugs from spreading earlier on.
2. If you can't get to soap and water, alcohol gel disinfectants work too — and antibacterial soaps are not your friend.
If you can't get to a sink, "alcohol gel is an excellent alternative to using soap and water for hand hygiene," says Dr. Mody.
You can leave the antibacterial soaps behind, though. After 40 years of government study, the FDA concluded that antibacterial soaps don't actually do much to curb bacteria.
In fact, when it comes to preventing the spread of superbugs, reaching for antibacterial and antibiotic products too soon may actually be harmful, because...
3. Too many antibiotics may actually make more superbugs.
Besides good hygiene, Dr. Mody says people can also help reduce the creation of superbugs by using antibiotics and antibacterial products as a last resort, rather than turning to them first.
Normally, antibiotics kill enough of an infection to keep us healthy. But sometimes, bacteria can mutate and pick up resistances to the drug. Haphazard use of antibiotics encourages these mutations and makes it easier for the newly dangerous bacteria to spread.
Using antibiotics more wisely, as Dr. Mody recommends, can help curb the spread of the superbugs.
What does this mean for you? Be more thoughtful about when to ask for them — antibiotics don't work for viral infections like the flu, for example. And many common infections, like ear infections, may not always need antibiotics — you should talk to your doctor and see what they think before requesting them.
4. That said, if you are on antibiotics, make sure you take all of them.
Don't just stop taking them when you're feeling better. If you stop early, there's a chance that a few superbug hangers-on will survive and become resistant to the drugs! Taking all your antibiotics will ensure that you get 'em all the first time around.
These steps may seem simple, but they're powerful.
Whether you're a hospital staffer who can reorganize a patient's room or remind them to wash their hands before they head out the door, or a grandparent eager to play with your grandkids, following these steps will help make sure we're all able to hug, touch, and play with our family and friends without fear of getting anyone sick.