Nearly twice as many people are dying from drug-resistant infections in the United States than previously thought, according to a report published Wednesday by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
"Superbugs" are responsible for more than 35,000 deaths and nearly 3 million illnesses each year, the report found.
The increase in deaths comes as researchers develop more sophisticated techniques to identify the deadly infections.
"Our first number was a conservative estimate," Michael Craig, senior adviser for antibiotic resistance at the CDC, said. "We have more concrete evidence that these infections actually lead to their deaths."
Superbugs evolve when the germs — including bacteria and fungi — become resistant to nearly all of the medications used to fight them. The fear, experts say, is that patients will develop once-treatable infections that are now resistant to every possible treatment.
"This is not some mystical apocalypse or fear-mongering. It is reality," said Dr. Victoria Fraser, the head of the Department of Medicine at the Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis.
"It’s right here, right now," she said. "We are faced with trying to take care of patients who have drug-resistant infections that we have no treatment for." Fraser was not involved with the new CDC report.
Some of the most common drug-resistant illnesses are urinary tract infections, particularly among women and the elderly, as well as hospitalized patients who need urinary catheters.
When doctors place catheters or other devices, such as IVs, pacemakers and artificial joints, inside the body, the risk for infection rises. It's these infections that are increasingly difficult to control and treat.
"A lot of the things that we’ve come to rely upon to prolong life in our country are really predicated on being able to use and have an effective antibiotic in case someone gets an infection," Craig said.
"We don’t want to be in a position where people are surviving their cancer treatments because of great chemotherapy drugs but then ultimately dying of a drug-resistant infection because we don’t have an effective antibiotic," he told NBC News.
People most vulnerable to drug-resistant infections are often very sick already and have compromised immune systems. Young children and the elderly are most at risk, too, but some of the superbugs are affecting otherwise healthy people.
"Some of these infections are now affecting healthier populations, which is a growing concern for us," Caig said.
RELATED: A breakdown of common bug bites
A breakdown of 9 common bug bites
A breakdown of 9 common bug bites
While bees make most people scream, thrash their arms, and run, the 'lil buzzers aren't really out to get you. In fact, they'd rather not bother with you at all, provided you leave them alone. But if you do get stung, you'll end up with a hive-like pink bump that itches—once it stops throbbing, says Tsippora Shainhouse MD, FAAD, a board-certified dermatologist in Beverly Hills. If the stinger is still visible, try scraping it gently with a credit card to remove it. Don't pinch the stinger with your fingers or tweezers or you could squeeze more venom into your skin, she says. "Treatment can include cool soaks, calamine lotion, oral histamines, like Benadryl, and maybe meat tenderizer," says Dr. Shainhouse. An enzyme in the tenderizer called papain may help break down the substance in venom that cause pain, she explains. "Another theory is that the venom is acidic and when it combines with the alkaline tenderizer, it neutralizes it and reduces the pain," says Dr. Shainhouse. Try a 4:1 ratio of water to meat tenderizer to make a paste. Signs that you're allergic to bee stings can be difficulty breathing, swallowing, vomiting, diarrhea, weakness, confusion, or sweating: Call 911 immediately. Learn the quick fixes for bee stings, bug bites, sunburn and other summer woes.
"The concern with tick bites is that they can be a vector for transmitting other infections, including Lyme disease, erlichiosis, Rocky Mountain spotted fever," says Dr Shainhouse. The trouble is, they are transmitted by different types of ticks and you probably won't see any visible sign of a tick bite the same day it occurs, especially if the tick is in the nymph stage. If a rash develops, it's usually within a few days of the bite. "The classic bulls-eye rash can be single or multiple rings," says Dr. Shainhouse, "and is characteristic of a Borreliaburgdorferi and Borreliamayonii infection, a spirochete that can be transmitted via a bite from the Ixodes deer tick. It can develop one to two weeks after you are bitten." However, the rash may not appear as a bulls-eye: It could show up solid red or not at all, despite the fact you're infected. You may not even feel sick with this rash, but fevers and headaches could develop. "It must be treated with a 20-day course of oral antibiotics as soon as possible," warns Dr. Shainhouse. Thankfully, not all tick bites automatically mean you'll get Lyme disease. Sometimes, treatment isn't required beyond removing the tick but it is important to show your medical care professional so the tick can be identified and determine if you are at risk for getting an infection.
It seems impossible to sail through summer without a "skeeter" bite, and yes—some people are more attractive to the flying pests than others. According to dermatologist Doris Day, MD, FAAD, Lenox Hill Hospital, New York City, mosquitoes are attracted to people with type O blood, lactic acid, and urea in sweat. Sadly, drinking beer outdoors or just wearing dark clothing can make you more desirable to these biting pests. Besides being a nuisance (that whining noise around your ears is maddening!), the mosquito can transmit infectious diseases. "They carry everything from West Nile virus to Chikungunya to Zika," says Dr. Day. If you get bit, the bug bite will be a small, puffy white bump with a red dot in the middle. It may turn hard and reddish the following day. It feels so good to scratch it but stop it right now: Itching can lead to infection or scarring at the site. Dr Day has some better advice. "Try applying a cold pack, aloe and cortisone cream or gel to help minimize itch." These 8 foods are proven to ward off mosquitoes.
Prevention is the best cure, so treat your pets against fleas. These nasty critters (the fleas, not your pets) cause painful and irritating bites and can even transmit tapeworm. Without treatment, fleas will enjoy the free all-you-eat buffet you and your furry friends provide. They don't fly but wow can they can jump—especially on to your ankles and calves. "Flea bites are usually tiny crusted red bumps on the lower legs," says Valerie Goldburt, MD, PhD, with Advanced Dermatology PC. "The bumps will be very itchy, so treat them with topical cortisone and soothing creams." She recommends keeping the creams the fridge so they're cool. "Or use ice cubes, which slow down nerve transmission and can help with itching," says Dr. Goldburt. If you notice these types of bug bites, talk to your vet about flea control, and call a pest control expert if you suspect flea infestation.
Brown recluse spider
The good news about this spider is its personality is pretty true to its name—they're shy and rarely bite unless provoked. Nonetheless, this spider poses a dangerous threat. Found in the south and central United States, the brown recluse prefers dark, sheltered spaces like basements and sheds. If you disturbed a brown recluse and it bit you, you may not realize it right away. "There's usually a single bite that turns into a red patch with possible blistering," says Dr Goldburt. "Symptoms can vary from slight to extremely intense itching and pain. Some bites can cause necrosis, where the tissue turns dark. This can become a medical emergency where affected tissue needs to be removed. You should see a doctor if you suspect a brown recluse spider bite." Follow these 9 steps to bug-proof your home.
Everyone was on high alert with all the media coverage of bed bugs in hotels a few years back. While you may not hear as much about them these days, you'll still want to know how to recognize signs of a bed bug infestation. "Bedbug bites typically appear as 'breakfast, lunch, and dinner' lesions," notes Joshua Zeichner, MD director of cosmetic and clinical research in Dermatology at Mount Sinai Hospital in New York City. What that means is the bugs typically bite the skin and then move on before biting again, leaving a linear distribution of bites. "The bites typically occur on the arms and the legs, as this is the skin exposed to the bed where the bugs have infested," says Dr. Zeichner. Luckily, bed bug bites will go away on their own after a few days; if the urge to scratch is driving you crazy, he recommends using an over-the-counter hydrocortisone ointment to reduce inflammation and itch. Don't miss the 16 secrets bed bugs don't want you to know.
You're not likely to see these little biters but you'll feel them later. They're not considered insects but actually members of the arachnid family, which includes ticks and spiders. They don't fly but that doesn't stop them from biting you if you're around grassy areas, a golf course, baseball field, or playground. Oddly enough, it's only the baby chiggers that bite—or shall we say teethe—on your skin. They crawl on your clothing until they find an open area of skin and then it's chomping time. "Chigger bites leave behind reddish bumps, with a brighter red dot in the center of each bump. These bumps also resemble pimples or hives," says Angela Lamb, MD, director of the Westside Mount Sinai Dermatology Faculty Practice. To get relief, Dr Lamb recommends taking a cool shower or washing the bite with soap and water. "To relieve the symptoms of itching or burning, I recommend applying cortisone cream or a topical treatment like After Bite, which uses a mix of soothing ingredients to provide itch relief. For kids—and adults with sensitive skin—I recommend using After Bite Kids, which is a gentle, non-stinging cream that also provides instant relief for symptoms of discomfort."
Black widow spider
Found in warm dry areas of the southern and western United States, the black widow has a distinctive red hourglass shape on its abdomen. Shy and fond of dark corners, this black beauty delivers a bite that is immediately painful. You'll have swelling and redness at the site and you may be able to see two fang marks. Within eight hours your muscles may become stiff, and you could experience nausea, dizziness, difficulty breathing, rash, itching, and even tremors and leg paralysis. If a child has been bitten, get to the ER quickly as the spiders can be fatal to young ones. You can wash the area with cold water and soap, and then ice for 10 minutes on, 10 minutes off until you get medical attention. Find out the 10 most dangerous bugs to watch out for.
They may be small, but fire ants are highly aggressive and deliver a painful bite. They're resilient too. According to the Washington Post, not even the floodwaters of the recent tropical storm Cindy have deterred them; the colony forms a loose ball and floats until the crew finds dry land. Generally, fire ants are found throughout the southeastern and southwestern United States. Their nests turn up on lawns, in parks, and pastures. "Fire ant stings can be identified by the groups of swollen red spots that appear on the skin and resemble pus-filled pimples. These round spots will often blister at the top shortly after the sting occurs," says Dr Lamb. Treat the bites as you would chiggers: Cool shower, soap and water, and topical treatments like After Bite.
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Five urgent threats
The report highlights five types of drug-resistant organisms the CDC deems "urgent threats."
One is a type of yeast, called Candida auris, which causes fungal infections. Another is the bacterium Neisseria gonorrhoeae, the cause of gonorrhea.
Two groups of bacteria are also on the list: Acinetobacter, which is commonly found in soil and water and can cause infections in blood, the urinary tract, and the lungs, or in open wounds; and carbapenem-resistant Enterobacteriaceae, or CRE. This group includes E. coli and Klebsiella pneumoniae.
The last is Clostridioides difficile, commonly called C. diff. Though these bacteria aren't as drug-resistant as the other organisms listed, the infection can cause deadly diarrhea. When researchers included deaths associated with C. diff in the report, yearly superbug deaths in the U.S. rose by 13,000, to 48,000 deaths.
Fighting the problem
One way to fight drug-resistant infections is by developing new drugs to which the superbugs haven't yet evolved resistance. But this leads to what experts call an evolutionary arms race, with scientists and superbugs constantly one-upping each other.
The responsibility doesn't only lie in scientists' hands, however. "We all have to do more," Craig said. "If everyone steps up, we know prevention is possible and we can see change."
There are a number of ways people can help combat the superbug problem and prevent it from getting worse. It starts with avoiding illnesses before antibiotics or anti-fungals are ever needed.
First, get the appropriate vaccines. Pneumococcal vaccine protects against bacterial pneumonia. And if you get the flu shot, you not only cut your risk of flu, but also secondary bacterial complications that can accompany severe cases.
Practice good hand hygiene, meaning washing your hands with soap multiple times a day: before and after preparing food, before and after treating wounds and cuts, after going to the bathroom, after caring for sick children or changing diapers, and after cleaning up your pet's poop.
Take antibiotics only when necessary, exactly as the doctor prescribes them. "Using antibiotics when they’re not indicated or when they’re used for too long or at inadequate doses alters people’s microbiome," Fraser said, referring to the collection of microbes that live in the gut.
Antibiotics kill off bad bacteria, but also good, healthy bacteria in the gut and on the skin. Upsetting this delicate balance can put you at risk for diarrhea and yeast infections.
Practice safe sex. When used consistently and correctly, condoms can greatly reduce the risk of getting a sexually transmitted infection, such as drug-resistant gonorrhea.
When possible, choose meats from animals raised without unnecessary antibiotics. Just like in humans, overuse of antibiotics in farm animals can also lead to drug resistance. Those resistant germs can contaminate meat when the animals are slaughtered and processed.