You go to the hospital to get better. But too often, the opposite happens. Recent estimates show that every year 648,000 people develop infections while in the hospital. Nasty ones, too, that may not be treatable with antibiotics and that prove fatal for 75,000 hospital patients.
Just one of those infections — caused by the bacterium Clostridium difficile, or C. diff — sickens about 290,000 hospital patients per year and kills at least 27,000, according to new data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. And many hospitals don’t do a good job of controlling the infections: 3 out of 10 hospitals in CR’s ratings system got low marks for not keeping C. diff in check, and 4 out of 10 got low marks for not reining in another deadly infection, MRSA, or methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus.
Those and other infections are spreading to doctor’s offices, nursing homes, other health-care facilities — even to people’s homes. That’s partly because many patients don’t know they have developed an infection until after they’re discharged: Although two-thirds of C. diff infections were linked to health-care facilities, only 24 percent of infected people developed symptoms while hospitalized, according to a February study in the New England Journal of Medicine.
Here’s how to protect yourself:
Hospitals are breeding grounds for dangerous infections, in part because of rampant misuse of antibiotic drugs. In 2010, almost a third of hospital patients were given at least one dose of powerful broad-spectrum antibiotics, which target multiple bacteria types at once.
Those drugs should be reserved for the hardest-to-treat infections. But at least 30 percent of prescriptions written for antibiotics in hospitals are unnecessary or inappropriate, according to the CDC.
The drugs increase infection risk in two ways. They can kill off healthy gut bacteria, allowing harmful bacteria to strike, says Clifford McDonald, a senior advisor at the CDC’s Division of Healthcare Quality Promotion. And antibiotic overuse breeds “superbugs,” bacteria that are resistant to many of the drugs.
So it’s vital that your doctor and hospital use antibiotics appropriately. “That doesn’t mean avoiding them altogether,” says John Santa, medical adviser for Consumer Reports. Instead, if you’re prescribed an antibiotic, ask the doctor to first determine what type of infection you have, if any, and to prescribe a drug, for the shortest time needed, that targets the infecting bacterium.
Also ask your doctor about probiotics. Some research suggests that hospital patients who take certain good bacteria — in pills or possibly just in yogurt — are less likely to suffer from C. diff. The probiotics may encourage the growth of healthy gut bacteria, which may protect against the harmful kind.
Last, insist that everyone — doctors, nurses and visitors — wash their hands before they touch you.
“Everyone leaving the hospital needs to assume they may have been infected,” says Lisa McGiffert, director of Consumer Reports’ Safe Patient Project. So watch for diarrhea, fever or other warning signs. Adults older than 65 are especially vulnerable, in the hospital and at home. But anyone on antibiotics as well as infants and people with a compromised immune system also face increased risks.
“So good hygiene after a hospital stay is key,” McGiffert says. That means careful hand washing and, if someone has an infection, these extra precautions:
• Clean frequently touched surfaces with one part bleach mixed with 10 parts water.
• Try to reserve a bathroom for the infected person. “Think about what they do in hospitals,” McGiffert says. “They isolate infected patients.”
• Don’t share towels or toiletries.
For more information about infections and the overuse of antibiotics, go to www.consumerreports.org/superbugs.
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.