MRSA Superbug Found In 20% of Dental Students

Bacteria are everywhere. This may creep out the Purell enthusiasts among you, but there’s just no other way to put it. Bacteria live in your food, they crawl over subway poles, Starbucks tables, and, unless you Cloroxed it in the last two minutes, your kitchen counter. They even live inside you.

There are good and bad kinds of bacteria. Good bacteria are the kinds that live in your non-fat Greek yogurt. Bad bacteria are the kind that makes you sick.

Staphylococcus aureus is a staph bacterium commonly found in the nose. In certain cases, certain strains become resistant to antibiotics, resulting in Methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus (MRSA). This is like the Darth Vader of infections. You do not want to get it, especially if you’re a patient about to get surgery. In fact, MRSA is commonly found in hospitals, a study found that 1 in 3 nurse bags carry this deadly superbug.

But another study conducted by Marilyn C. Roberts and her colleagues at the Department of Environmental and Occupational Health Sciences of the University of Washington might change the way we think about where MRSA can be found. Roberts found evidence to suggest that dental clinics and MRSA colonized dental students might also be reservoirs for transmission to other students, patients and personnel.

Using a sample of 7 clinics, Roberts examined five areas for MRSA: the uncovered areas of the dental chair and armrest, the floor beneath the chair, the sink next to the chair, the towel dispenser next to the chair and finally, the counter next to the chair. Basically, anywhere you sit, touch or see when you visit the dentist.  Four out of those seven had positive MRSA samples.

In addition to all that, Roberts took nasal samples from 61 volunteer dental students volunteers from the University of Washington Dental School. Of those students, 13 (21%) were MRSA positive.

According to a post written by James Steckleberg for the Mayo Clinic’s entry on MRSA, the bacterium spreads by skin-to-skin contact, or by touching contaminated objects.

Roberts’ study is the first to look at MRSA colonization in dental clinics outside of a hospital setting.  To make things even more cheerful, all the MRSA positive surfaces were for strains resistant to several types of antibiotics.

“But wait,” you could say, “does this just mean that University of Washington dental students are gross?” Well, no. The issue is larger than that. Roberts and her colleagues recently cultured the same kind of surfaces in a community dental center in the Pacific Northwest. Two of the 16 samples were MRSA positive.

Roberts admits not knowing the actual risk level associated with these findings, but that these results are very probably not restricted to the Pacific Northwest. “Further studies are needed from more dental and clinic surfaces, dental patients, dental personnel, and students from diverse geographic locations,” Roberts writes in the study.

Going to the dentist is challenging enough for some people.  Even as the daughter of a dentist, the sound of the drill is enough to conjure up images of Lawrence Olivier’s evil Nazi dentist in Marathon Man.  But the thought of creepy crawlies (even figurative ones) waiting to infect my skin is almost too much to bear.

So what can you do to protect yourself?

One essential way is by reducing the unnecessary use of antibiotics. Don’t pop a pill because you feel the sniffles coming on, and don’t give your child antibiotics unless prescribed by a doctor.

According to the Mayo Clinic, MRSA infections can heal after being drained if caught early.  If your infection doesn’t heal, your doctor may be able to prescribe antibiotics that are still effective. More extreme cases might call for hospitalization, as the infections can be life-threatening.

But most importantly, if you suspect a MRSA infection, DON’T try and self-treat.  Look what happened to Obi-Wan when he tried to take on Darth Vader alone.

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