The term superbug has become popular of late in the media. Sadly, that’s because superbugs are one of the biggest public health threats we face today and are indeed cause for serious concern. There is even talk of this being the beginning of the end for antibiotics. Although this threat is very real in the field of medicine, superbugs are less of a concern when it comes to surface disinfectants. So why are superbugs a serious problem in one field and not in another?

What is a superbug?

A superbug is basically a normal bacterium that has mutated to become resistant to external attacks. In other words, it has learned how to build a defence system that can withstand antibiotics.

Ideally, antibiotics are effective enough to kill all the bacteria that are present, which ensures that no resistance can develop. However, if the concentration of antibiotics is insufficient, some of the bacteria will remain. This is when a bacterium can potentially alter its metabolism to generate the molecules that will allow it to survive this in new hostile environment – thereby attaining the status of “superbug.” This superbug will then quickly grow and multiply, transmitting its new defence mechanism (resistance) to the other bacteria at the same time. In such a scenario, the antibiotics will destroy only the non-resistant bacteria, leaving more room for the superbugs to grow – on which the antibiotics won’t work.

It’s worth noting that a superbug can be resistant to a specific antibiotic or to a family of antibiotics.

Disinfectant vs antibiotic

So how do superbugs affect surface disinfection? First, it’s important to understand the difference between a disinfectant and an antibiotic. A disinfectant is a chemical or physical product that kills or inactivates microorganisms (like bacteria and viruses) on inert surfaces like medical equipment, surfaces, etc., while an antibiotic is a natural or synthetic substance that specifically destroys bacteria or prevents them from growing. One of the main differences between the two has to do with where they work. A disinfectant works on inert surfaces while an antibiotic works in the human body.

Sword vs. atomic bomb

Given that bacteria are cells like those found in the human body, it is impossible to achieve the general action of disinfectants with antibiotics. That’s because the main role of an antibiotic is generally to modify the metabolism of bacteria; it penetrates the bacterial membrane and attacks specific actions, rendering the bacteria unable to function normally. This causes the bacteria to either stop growing or to die. In contrast, a disinfectant will generally destroy the membrane of any type of organism it encounters.

In terms of attack “power”, an antibiotic can be seen as being in a sword fight in which each attacker targets a specific opponent, whereas a disinfectant is more of an atomic bomb that destroys everything in its path. When confronted with a disinfectant, bacteria have no chance of growing or developing resistance before being annihilated.

This is why superbugs pose little cause for concern when it comes to surface disinfectants. Disinfectants will always win the battle – no matter how many swords or bacteria they have to fight.