Find Information About:

Drugs & Supplements

Get information and reviews on prescription drugs, over-the-counter medications, vitamins, and supplements. Search by name or medical condition.

Pill Identifier

Pill Identifier

Having trouble identifying your pills?

Enter the shape, color, or imprint of your prescription or OTC drug. Our pill identification tool will display pictures that you can compare to your pill.

Get Started

My Medicine

Save your medicine, check interactions, sign up for FDA alerts, create family profiles and more.

Get Started

WebMD Health Experts and Community

Talk to health experts and other people like you in WebMD's Communities. It's a safe forum where you can create or participate in support groups and discussions about health topics that interest you.

  • Second Opinion

    Second Opinion

    Read expert perspectives on popular health topics.

  • Community


    Connect with people like you, and get expert guidance on living a healthy life.

Got a health question? Get answers provided by leading organizations, doctors, and experts.

Get Answers

Sign up to receive WebMD's award-winning content delivered to your inbox.

Sign Up

Font Size

Bacterial Biofilms: A Slimy Situation For Medical Devices

WebMD Health News

March 9, 2000 (Atlanta) -- The very instruments used to keep patients alive can be a source of deadly infection. Catheters, artificial valves, and other medical devices are remaining in place longer than ever, and colonization with slimy, tenacious bacterial biofilms is a growing problem, according to researchers at a CDC conference on hospital infections.

John W. Costerton, PhD, director of Montana State University's Center for Biofilm Engineering, explained that biofilms are groups of bacteria growing in formation. The cells secrete a slimy material that forms a protective barrier around the colony. Though biofilms have been studied extensively in industrial settings, only recently has that knowledge been applied to medicine.

Biofilms, often disgusting but generally benign -- dental plaque and shower curtain mildew are examples -- can pose a serious threat when they form on medical devices. While a healthy person can safely shower in or even ingest biofilm, a patient whose urinary catheter or breathing tube is shedding bacterial colonies is in serious jeopardy, says Costerton.

"The impact of [breathing in] a large lump of bacteria enclosed in a slime matrix is a very serious challenge to health," he says. Animal experiments show that lungs can deal with a large number of single bacterial cells, which are easily destroyed by the immune system, Costerton says, "but a lump of biofilm always produces infection."

According to presenter Rodney M. Donlan, PhD, a microbiologist with the CDC's Hospital Infections Program, it may be easier to prevent biofilms from forming than to get rid of established colonies, because "they are very tenacious and difficult to remove from a device, even with disinfection." To that end, prevention research is taking several approaches, ranging from mechanical to biochemical. Researchers, for example, are working on smoother surfaces that discourage bacteria from adhering to them.

Biofilm "is not something new," says Michael Bell, MD, a hospital epidemiologist who is also with the CDC's Hospital Infections Program. "Organisms have been able to do this nifty thing for a very long time, but are now becoming important because we are creating a population of susceptible people [while] increasingly using invasive devices," he says.

WebMD Video: Now Playing

Click here to wach video: Dirty Truth About Hand Washing

Which sex is the worst about washing up? Why is it so important? We’ve got the dirty truth on how and when to wash your hands.

Click here to watch video: Dirty Truth About Hand Washing