Washing up with soap and water for at least 20 seconds helps you avoid getting and spreading infections. (Bigstock)

The drugs we have relied on for 70 years to fight bacterial infections — everything from infected cuts to potentially deadly pneumonia — are becoming powerless. Why? Because antibiotics are often misused by doctors, patients and even people raising animals for meat. And that misuse, which includes prescribing or using those drugs incorrectly, breeds “superbugs” — dangerous, antibiotic-resistant bacteria that can’t be easily controlled.

Too much of a good thing

Often when we’re sick, we ask our doctors for antibiotics to treat problems that the drugs simply don’t work against, such as colds or the flu. Those illnesses are usually caused by viruses, not bacteria — and antibiotics don’t work against viruses.

Doctors know that the drugs don’t work for viral infections. But they’re often all too willing to comply. That’s partly because they want to make their patients happy and partly because doing so is faster than ordering tests to confirm the cause.

The problem isn’t limited to doctors’ offices. Many of us use antibacterial cleaning products in our homes. “They contain triclosan or other antibiotics,” says Urvashi Rangan, director of the Consumer Reports Center for Safety and Sustainability. “These products may promote resistance, and plain soap and water is enough to get most cleaning jobs done.”

Farms can also pose a concern: About 80 percent of the antibiotics sold in the United States are fed to livestock to speed growth and prevent disease in healthy animals.

How resistance develops

Every time you use an antibiotic, it kills some — but not all — of the bacteria in your body. The survivors might mutate, modifying their genetic material so that they are no longer vulnerable to the drug.

Antibiotics also kill off some of the “good” bacteria that normally live in your intestines, which may allow resistant bacteria to fill the void. Those bacteria can then multiply and transfer their drug resistance to other bacteria, magnifying the problem.

The superbug threat

Superbugs are a growing worry. Antibiotic-resistant infections, such as methicillin-resistant staphylococcus aureus (MRSA), sicken at least 2 million Americans each year and kill 23,000, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Compounding the crisis is that drugmakers are spending less time and money creating new antibiotics even as more bacteria are becoming resistant to the older drugs.

Alarmed by the situation, health leaders are working to change how we use antibiotics. But experts say those efforts won’t be successful unless patients participate by, for example, avoiding antibiotics when they aren’t necessary and taking steps to reduce their use at home.

What you can do

First, take precautions to avoid infections. Second, when you do need the drugs, use them properly. Both strategies are incorporated in the following steps.

At home:

●Keep hands clean. Washing up with soap and water for at least 20 seconds helps you avoid getting and spreading infections. Avoid antibacterial hand soaps.

●Use antibiotic creams sparingly. Use over-the-counter antibiotic ointments containing bacitracin and neomycin only for cuts and scrapes that leave visible dirt behind. Wash all superficial wounds with soap and water.

●Consider purchasing meat labeled “no antibiotics” or “USDA organic.” Rangan says that “buying meat raised without antibiotics supports farmers who keep animals off unnecessary drugs and helps preserve the effectiveness of antibiotics.”

In the doctor’s office:

●Get vaccinated. Some shots prevent bacterial infections, such as diphtheria and whooping cough. Pneumonia can be viral or bacterial, and there are vaccines to prevent both. And while the flu is always viral, getting vaccinated makes it less likely that you’ll get sick from it and ask your doctor for antibiotics unnecessarily.

●Don’t push for antibiotics. If your doctor says you don’t have a bacterial infection, don’t insist. Instead, ask about other ways to get relief.

●Fight it off. If bacteria are the cause, ask if you might be able to beat the infection on your own.

●Follow directions. Take the full course of your prescription, even if you feel better after a day or two. If treatment stops too soon, the antibiotic might not kill all the problematic bacteria, some of which might reinfect you and become resistant to the drug.

●Don’t use leftovers. Taking medications left over from a previous illness is a bad idea, because your current problem might not stem from a bacterial infection or because the antibiotic might not be the right one for it.

In the hospital:

●Get screened for MRSA before surgery. A simple nasal swab can tell whether you carry low levels of MRSA and allow the hospital staff to take precautions, such as prescribing antibiotic nasal ointments and having you use special soap before your procedure.

●Say “no” if someone tries to shave you with a razor before surgery. Nicks can provide an opening on your skin for bacteria to enter your body.

●Insist on clean hands. If you don’t see health-care providers or visitors wash their hands, ask them to do so. Bring bleach wipes to use on bedrails, doorknobs and the TV remote.

●Ask every day if catheters or other tubes can be removed. They can lead to urinary-tract and bloodstream infections.

Copyright 2014. Consumers Union of United States Inc.

For further guidance, go to www.ConsumerReports.org/Health, where more detailed information, including CR’s ratings of prescription drugs, treatments, hospitals and healthy-living products, is available to subscribers.