Everyone has certain bacteria, called enterococci, that live in their intestines and genital tract. They’re also found in the environment.
Most of the time they don’t cause any problems, but sometimes they can trigger infections. When they do, they’re treated with a powerful antibiotic called vancomycin.
Sometimes, the bacteria become resistant to the antibiotic. That means they can live even though the drug is designed to kill them. These superbugs are called vancomycin-resistant enterococci, or VRE. They’re dangerous because they’re more difficult to treat than regular infections.
How Common Is VRE?
An estimated 20,000 people in the United States become infected with it each year. A little fewer than 10% of people who get it die from it.
People who stay in a hospital have the highest odds of getting VRE. That’s partly because infections that don’t respond to antibiotics spread most easily in places where the drugs are used most often.
But you might also have a greater chance of developing a VRE infection if you:
- Were treated with vancomycin or other antibiotics for long periods of time
- Recently had surgery, especially of the abdomen or chest
- Used medical devices that stay in the body for some time, like urinary or IV catheters
- Have a weakened immune system
- Were in intensive care units or cancer or transplant wards
- Already have VRE growing in your intestines or genital tracts. Doctors call this “being colonized” with the bacteria.
Symptoms and Diagnosis
VRE comes with a number of symptoms. Yours might actually be caused not by VRE, but by other infections it can trigger, like urinary tract infections, bloodstream infections, and wound infections.
The time between when you’re infected and when you develop symptoms varies, too.
You doctor will take a sample from the affected area and send it to a lab. If the sample tests positive -- meaning you have VRE -- he’ll do more tests to find out which antibiotic will best treat it.
How Can You Stop the Spread of VRE?
These superbugs can live on hard surfaces for some time. So wipe down counters, bathrooms, and other areas of your home that are easy resting places for them.
Wash your hands with soap and water after using the bathroom and before making food -- especially if you’re in contact with someone who has VRE. A good rule of thumb is to wash up long enough to sing “Happy Birthday to You” twice.
Wear gloves if you’re working in close contact with bodily fluids -- like stool or bandages from infected wounds -- that may contain VRE. Always wash your hands after taking off your gloves.
If someone in your care has it, let their healthcare providers know so they can take steps to protect themselves, too.