Superbugs: How Freaked Out Should I Be?
We field a lot of science-y questions like this one: does using a UV sanitizer create superbugs?
It’s a worthwhile topic because the organisms we call superbugs really are a threat to human health.
The short answer is no, UV-C light doesn’t create superbugs. To understand why that is, let's explore what superbugs are and what we really can do about them.
What is a “superbug”?
“Superbug” is a nickname for bacteria that have become resistant to multiple antibiotics. Doctors and researchers refer to these microbes as "drug-resistant bacteria." A growing and serious challenge, these durable microbes sicken about 2 million people per year and lead to approximately 23,000 deaths, according to the Centers for Disease Control (CDC).
For example, an outbreak of CRE (carbapenem-resistant enterobacteriaceae) in two Los-Angeles hospitals, linked to contaminated medical tools, sickened 11 people. Two died, and more than 200 other people were exposed to these powerful germs.
Where do superbugs come from?
The short and disheartening answer is that they actually come from using one of our greatest allies: antibiotics.
According to the CDC, the misuse of antibiotics is the "single leading factor.”
When antibiotics are prescribed too often, it creates an ideal environment within host organisms (such as humans or livestock) where bacteria become accustomed to the medication. With each exposure, a tiny selection of bacteria learns to survive the same or similar drugs.
These hardy bacteria then multiply within the host (the person or animal that received the antibiotics), passing on their new “skill” to the next generation.
Why are bacteria able to adapt to antibiotics?
Like all organisms, bacteria respond to threats in their environment, adapt and then pass on helpful adaptations to their offspring. So when the same bacteria has been exposed repeatedly to the same chemical messengers, in the form of a particular antibiotic drug, a tiny subset of bacteria may be able to resist that chemical compound, shielding themselves with stronger outer proteins that prevent the drug from penetrating.
These bacteria are then free to reproduce, making it more likely that their offspring will be able to do the same. And there you go.
In time, a larger number of the bacteria in that lineage will be able to shield themselves from common antibiotics.
The Mayo Clinic explains that superbug bacterium can spread around the outside world like any other bacteria, through respiration or on poorly cleaned objects and surfaces. This is how antibiotic resistant infections arise.
Can bacteria become resistant to UV-C light?
The answer appears to be no. Studies so far have found no evidence that bacteria (or viruses) can product defense mechanisms against UV-C light. But remember, even if they could build UV light resistance, that would not make them automatically resistant to antibiotics as well. And ensuring that our antibiotics remain a potent weapon against bacteria-based infections is the critical goal for all of us.
It helps to understand that UV-C light works differently from the chemical messengers in antibiotics. All forms of UV light, which features a wide spectrum, is a form of radiation. In the case of UV-C light, this radiation readily damages a microbe’s DNA and RNA while eliminating its reproductive power simply by irradiating the outside of the bacteria.
A study published in PubMed evaluated the question of UV light resistance. The study designers focused on some of the most dangerous bacteria found in hospital settings and known for antibiotic resistance.
They chose Methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus (MRSA), carbapenemase-producing Klebsiella pneumoniae (KPC) and metallo-β-lactamase-producing Klebsiella pneumoniae (MBL).
In their study, they exposed up to 10 million organisms in each category to 25 irradiation cycles with UV-C light, measuring the microbial die off rates with each exposure.
They concluded that this repeated exposure “did not engender UV resistance” and “thus, UV disinfection is unlikely to generate UV-resistant hospital flora.”
How can we stop creating and spreading superbugs?
We all have a vested interest in stopping the spread of superbugs and ensuring that our antibiotics remain a potent ally against bacterial infection for generations to come. It turns out that each one of us can support this cause.
Consider these recommendations:
Protect yourself and others from illness-causing pathogens by:
- Washing your hands regularly with soap and water
- Using an alcohol-based hand sanitizer
- Handling raw food carefully, keeping it away from fresh food
- Cooking food thoroughly
- Using clean water
- Avoiding close contact with ill people
- Staying home when you are sick
- Keeping your vaccinations up to date
- Disinfecting surfaces in your home, car and workplace
You can also help thwart antibiotic resistance by:
- Using antibiotics only as directed and only when needed
- Finishing prescribed antibiotics, even if you feel better
- Not sharing your antibiotics with anyone else
- Never taking antibiotics that weren’t prescribed to you directly
Keep up with regular, tried and true hygiene at home and wherever you go. We encourage you to disinfect high touch items with UV-C sanitizers. A HomeSoap Large Capacity Sanitizer or our ultra powerful and portable UV-C sanitizing wand, SurfaceSoap UV, make it easy to eradicate germs on high touch objects and surfaces.
These are wise and easy ways to take great care of yourself while maintaining a low germ environment for everyone around you. In this way, you too can stop the spread of superbugs.
- NIH PubMed Article: “Can multidrug-resistant organisms become resistant to ultraviolet (UV) light following serial exposures? Characterization of post-UV genomic changes using whole-genome sequencing”
- Konica Minolta Article: “The Truth About Superbugs and UV Light”
- Mayo Clinic Article: “What are superbugs and how can I protect myself from infection?