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Enterococcus is a genus of bacteria that are normally harmless to humans. In fact, almost all people have benign colonies of the bacteria in their digestive tracts. When a person suffers a severe illness or has a compromised immune system, however, colonies can become active and wreak havoc on the body. Bacteria can infect the urinary tract, skin wounds, kidneys, and occasionally the bloodstream and heart muscles. Most cases of Enterococcus infections can be managed with antibiotics, but some new strains are becoming drug-resistant and much more difficult to treat.
Elderly people and infants are at the highest risk of Enterococcus complications because their immune systems are not strong enough to combat the bacteria. People who have AIDS or another condition that impairs immune system functioning are also at an increased risk. Rarely, otherwise healthy men and women can acquire infection if they are in close contact with contagious patients in hospitals. Bacteria can be transmitted from one person to another through close contact, sharing drinks and utensils, or handling contaminated clothes or waste.
The most common problem associated with Enterococcus is urinary tract infection. Patients may have painful, frequent urination with abnormal, yellow, foul-smelling discharge from the genitals. Bacteria can also cause digestive tract problems, such as diarrhea, stomach cramps, nausea, and vomiting. If a skin wound gets infected, it may swell and fill with pus. Less commonly, a type of heart inflammation called endocarditis can occur that causes flu-like symptoms and breathing difficulties.
Patients who have symptoms of severe Enterococcus infections are typically quarantined while diagnostic tests are run. Blood, stool, and urine samples are collected and analyzed to check for the presence of bacteria. Ultrasounds or computerized tomography scans may be used to look for signs of inflammation in the heart, liver, lungs, and other vital organs.
In the past, Enterococcus was easily curable with common antibiotics such as vancomycin. Some bacterial strains are so prolific, however, that they have developed a strong resistance to antibiotic treatment over the last few decades. Vancomycin-resistant Enterococcus poses a challenge to health-care workers in hospitals because it can take several days of trial-and-error treatments before an effective antibiotic is found against a particular strain. In the meantime, hospital staff and other patients are susceptible to contracting the infection themselves. Careful quarantining measures and new antibiotics help to limit the chances of hospital outbreaks and clear up patients' symptoms in as little as one week.
In the United States, most public beaches will test the water for enterococcus bacteria and close the beach if the level is too high. A high level means that there is a greater chance of infection from swimming in the water. This is a real concern for tourists as a lot of countries dump sewage into their bodies of water and may not be safe for swimming.