In the early 2000s, hospitals across Australia began installing more hand-sanitizer dispensers in their rooms and hallways for staff, visitors and patients to use. Research showed these alcohol-based disinfectants helped battle staph infections in patients and certain kinds of drug-resistant bacteria. And rates of these infections went down.
But other infections didn’t drop when people started using the sanitizer stations. In fact, certain infections went up.
In particular, enterococcal infections — caused by bacteria that affect the digestive tract, bladder, heart and other parts of the body — started increasing.
This wasn’t only happening in Australia. Countries around the world saw rises in this type of infection even as hand sanitizer became more popular. Globally, enterococci make up ten percent of bacterial infections acquired in the hospital. In North America and Europe, they are a leading cause of sepsis, a deadly blood infection.
Now, researchers say, they may have found the cause. Blame it on the alcohol.
New research published by Science Translational Medicine on Wednesday shows that several strains of these bacteria have begun adjusting to alcohol-based hand sanitizers. They’re not resistant to the alcohol — at least, not yet — but they’re becoming “more tolerant” of it, the authors write. That means the bacteria were able to survive for longer periods of time after being doused with alcohol.