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Coffee and tea to the rescue in minimizing the spread of flesh eating bacteria

Dominika Osmolska Psy.D.'s picture

Once again coffee and tea are making news headlines with their health-enhancing properties. Earlier this month we reported on the benefits of coffee drinking in helping to prevent Alzheimer’s disease. Now a new government study published in the Annals of Family Medicine shows that those who drink hot tea or coffee are about twice as likely as non-drinkers to ward off methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus, or MRSA.

MRSA has been making headlines in recent years as the dreaded bug which is resistant to many forms of antibiotic treatment, and which can, sometimes, lead to necrotizing conditions popularly known as flesh-eating. MRSA, in short, is the flesh-eating bacteria we would rather never come into contact with.

The study found that about 1% of the population, or roughly 2.5 million people, are nasal carriers of MRSA. Even though they may not have symptoms, these carriers can still spread the superbug through sneezing or rubbing their nose and then touching public surfaces. It was found that consumers of hot tea and coffee were less likely to be nasal carriers of MRSA. This effect is likely the result of anti-microbial properties in coffee and tea.

Consumption of iced tea, however, was not associated with nasal MRSA carriage. The reason is unclear, but it could be that iced tea has lower levels of polyphenolic compounds than hot tea, or that the volatile antimicrobial compounds in coffee and tea reach the nose in vapor form, according to the researchers involved in the study.

In addition, they wrote, drinking both coffee and tea decrease iron absorption, which could affect the growth of S. aureus.

People can carry MRSA for weeks to perhaps years without developing symptoms. When and if they do, MRSA can take hold in human tissues and eventually become resistant to treatment. The initial presentation of MRSA is small red bumps that resemble pimples, spider bites, or boils that may be accompanied by fever and occasionally rashes. Within a few days the bumps become larger, more painful, and eventually open into deep, pus-filled boils.

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Most infections with MRSA are limited to the skin and soft tissue, but a minority of cases can spread rapidly to organs and lead to widespread infection, toxic shock syndrome, and necrotizing, or flesh-eating processes. It is not known why some people develop only surface skin infections and why others, equally or more healthy, can develop life-threatening forms of the illness. The bacteria attack parts of the immune system, and even engulf white blood cells.

Flesh eating bacteria syndrome can affect deeper layers of the skin, the heart, where it attacks heart valve function, bones and joints. Clearly, even those who survive a bout with MRSA in its more extreme manifestation can become permanently scarred and disabled.

The clinical importance of the findings in the current study is not entirely clear because the relationship between nasal MRSA carriage and the chances of systemic infection still has not been resolved.

At-risk populations for contracting MRSA are:

• People with weak immune systems (people living with HIV/AIDS, cancer patients, transplant recipients, severe asthmatics, etc.)
• Diabetics
• Intravenous drug users
• Young children
• The elderly
• College students living in dormitories
• People staying or working in a health care facility for an extended period of time
• People who spend time in coastal waters where MRSA is present, such as some beaches in Florida and the west coast of the U.S.
• People who spend time in confined spaces with other people, including prison inmates, military recruits in basic training, and individuals who spend considerable time in change rooms or gyms.

That’s a large segment of the population.

Frequent hand washing, sanitizing surfaces with alcohol, and restricting anti-biotic use are some of the measures the public can take against MRSA.

And now, it seems, a hot cup of tea or coffee might help, too.