What are vancomycin-resistant enterococci (VRE)?

Vancomycin-resistant enterococci (VRE) are a type of bacteria called enterococci that have developed resistance to many antibiotics, especially vancomycin. Enterococci bacteria live in our intestines and on our skin, usually without causing problems. But if they become resistant to antibiotics, they can cause serious infections, especially in people who are ill or weak. These infections can occur anywhere in the body. Some common sites include the intestines, the urinary tract, and wounds.

Vancomycin-resistant enterococci infections are treated with antibiotics, which are the types of medicines normally used to kill bacteria. VRE infections are more difficult to treat than other infections with enterococci, because fewer antibiotics can kill the bacteria.

How are VRE infections spread?

VRE, like many bacteria, can be spread from one person to another through casual contact or through contaminated objects. Most often, VRE infections are spread from the hands of health care workers to a patient in a hospital or other facility such as a nursing home. VRE infections are not usually spread through the air like the common cold or flu virus unless you have VRE pneumonia and are coughing, which is rare.

If you are healthy, your chances of getting a VRE infection are very low. Even if you have been exposed to VRE, or have VRE in your body, you are not likely to get an infection. VRE infections typically only occur among people who have weakened immune systems, such as people who have long-term illnesses or people who have had major surgery or other medical procedures and have been treated with multiple antibiotics.

Experts do not know exactly why some people become infected with VRE and others do not. But they do know that VRE infections are more likely to develop when antibiotics such as vancomycin are used often. If you take antibiotics when you do not need them, they may not work when you do need them. Each time you take antibiotics, you are more likely to have some bacteria that the medicine does not kill. These bacteria can change (mutate) so they are harder to kill. Then, the antibiotics that used to kill them no longer work. These bacteria are called antibiotic-resistant bacteria.