Your Bacteria-Fighting Battle Plan

Superbugs and the sicknesses they cause are on the rise, but don’t get scared - get moving. Follow these simple steps to keep your family safe.

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You hear about them in the headlines everyday - bacteria in our food, around our homes, even on our body - that are making more and more of us sick, sometimes fatally so. Unfortunately, it's not just hype. Experts agree that we are facing a superbug epidemic. Harmful bacteria are spreading and growing stronger and more drug resistant. Unless you know what to do, you may be putting your family at risk for a fatal infection. Here is the life-saving information you need to win the war against the bad guys.

MRSA

Did you ever think methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus (MRSA) would become a common household term? It has, because last year MRSA killed 19,000 Americans, and experts believe that over 2 million of us are living with this deadly bacteria on our bodies.

What it is Staphylococcus aureus is a germ usually found in our nasal passages that can cause an infection in the right circumstances. When that happens, antibiotics can keep it in check. But MRSA is a particularly tough strain of staph that isn't vulnerable to antibiotics. MRSA first raised trouble in hospital settings, but in the past decade, hospitals have begun to win the war against this fatal super bug while the rest of us are losing it. In some parts of the country as many as 10% of people harbor MRSA. Though you can still contract MRSA in a healthcare setting, these days you're more likely to get it from a neighbor or a friend.

What it can do When MRSA meets an open sore on your body, it moves in and multiplies at an alarming rate causing you to develop a fever and your wound to become red, swollen, painful, and oozing. If you have a wound that won't heal, there's a good chance it has MRSA.

What you can do Ignore the old wives' tale that you should air-dry cuts; cover them to keep the bad guys out. If you end up in the ER - where three-quarters of people with wounds that won't heal test positive for MRSA - insist you get tested too. Don't share razors, towels, or soap with someone else. If you can, bring your own towel to the gym and health club, where MRSA can be lurking and towel-cleaning practices are sometimes not good enough to kill it. Wash your own towels every few days and dry on high. Try using tea tree ointment on any parts of your body you're concerned about. It's a safe, natural antiseptic that can help kill bacteria.

E. Coli

Escherichia coli - here's another mouthful of Latin that has become too familiar to all of us. Since 1993, we've been hearing about ground beef, spinach, pizza and frozen cookie dough being recalled because it harbored this deadly bacteria. Last year alone, E. coli sickened 300,000 people. In fact, in October 2009 the country was devastated by the story of a young woman, Stephanie Smith, who went to a relative's house for a hamburger and ended up with an E. coli infection that paralyzed her.

What it is E. coli is a fecal-borne bacteria that can grow in food and water after it contacts fecal matter. The most damaging strain is E. Coli 0157:H7, found in animal waste. Another culprit is ground beef, which is often made from animal scraps and trimmings that come closest to where feces residue resides.

What it can do Smith's reaction was rare and extreme, but the damage E. coli can do ranges from an unexplained bout of diarrhea to serious kidney damage to death, particularly in children or people who have weakened immune systems.

What you can do No matter how rare you like your hamburger, you value your health more. So, ask for ground beef to be cooked well and do the same at home (all meat should be cooked to 160 degrees to ensure that bacteria are killed). Thaw meat in your refrigerator (not on the counter or in the sink) and store on the bottom shelf in a leak-proof container, so bacteria-laden juices won't drip onto other foods.

E. coli can double their numbers in just 45 minutes in your warm, cozy kitchen, so make it less hospitable for them. Before and after meal prep, clean your counters, cutting boards, and sink with a daily-made solution of one jigger of bleach to a quart of water. Or use a solution of 50% vinegar, 50% water in a spray bottle. Because towels can harbor E. coli and spread it around, use a paper towel to wipe surfaces clean and throw it away.

If you experience the main symptoms of E. coli poisoning - severe stomach cramps, diarrhea (often with blood in the stool) and vomiting - see a medical professional as soon as possible. The sooner you are treated, the better your chances for a full recovery. And the sooner health officials can track down the source of your contamination, the smaller the chances that other will get sick.

Helicobacter pylori

Even if you haven't heard of this bug, you certainly know about the trouble it can cause: ulcers, which nearly 25 million Americans suffer from. But did you know that, left untreated, those ulcers can lead to cancer?

What it is A bacteria that finds its way into your stomach (possibly from food or water) and, for some, causes no problems. However, for others, the results can be devastating.

What it can do H. pylori gets into trouble when it dissolves the mucous lining that normally protects your stomach from the acid necessary to digestion. That acid, in turn, damages the cells of your stomach lining just as the sun damages your skin cells, causing irritation, inflammation and creating the potential for cancerous cell growth. 

What you can do If you experience ulcer symptoms such as stomach pain, gas, bloating, indigestion, and hunger soon after eating, see your doctor. They can perform a very simple breath test to determine if you have H. pylori. And, even though many people harbor H. pylori and never develop ulcers or stomach cancer, your doctor may decide to treat you, particularly if you have a history of gastric cancer in your family.