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NEW YORK (Reuters Life!) - People who regularly drink tea or coffee may be less likely to be carriers of the "superbug" MRSA, according to a U.S. study.
Out of more than 5,500 Americans who took part in a government study published in the Annals of Family Medicine, those who drank hot tea or coffee were about half as likely as non-drinkers to harbor methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus (MRSA) in their nostrils.
But exactly what it means is still unclear.
"Hot tea and coffee have been found to have antimicrobial properties," wrote lead researcher Eric Matheson, of the University of South Carolina, Charleston.
"Consumption of hot tea or coffee is associated with a lower likelihood of MRSA nasal carriage."
In general, about 1 percent of the U.S. population carries MRSA in the nose or on the skin, but does not get sick.
The idea for the study came from the fact that, in both the lab dish and in humans, topically applied or inhaled tea extracts have shown some anti-MRSA activity, Matheson said.
Less research has been done on coffee compounds, but there is some evidence of antibacterial powers there as well.
Matheson's team found that, indeed, tea and coffee drinkers were less likely to carry MRSA.
Overall, 1.4 percent of the study group harbored the bacteria in their noses. But those odds were about 50 percent lower among people who said they drank hot tea or coffee, versus non-drinkers.
The big caveat, though, is that the link does not prove that tea or coffee are the reason for the lower risk, Matheson said.
The study shows an association between the two, "but you never can conclude causation from an association. I can't tell you that this finding isn't just a coincidence," he added.
The researchers tried to account for several other factors, such as age, income or self-rated health, but the beverages were still linked to lower odds of being a MRSA carrier.
"Our findings raise the possibility of a promising new method to decrease MRSA nasal carriage that is safe, inexpensive, and easily accessible," Matheson wrote.
One issue is that even if coffee and tea drinkers do have a lower risk of carrying MRSA, whether that makes them less likely to actually fall ill is unknown. Matheson said there is also still debate about whether MRSA carriers are at increased risk of developing an active infection.
For now, Matheson stops short of recommending that people start drinking coffee or tea in the hopes of fending off MRSA.
"Based on one association study, that would probably be too much," he said. SOURCE: bit.ly/qA66m7
Reporting by Amy Norton at Reuters Health; editing by Elaine Lies