How to Avoid a Staph Infection and MRSA

It’s a fact of life: Bacteria live on us and in us. Staphylococcus aureus is one of them. Nearly one in three people carry staph bacteria on the skin or in the nose, though most of us have no ill effects from it.

But S. aureus can turn into a staph infection, causing boils, blisters, and rashes to break out on the skin. A staph infection has the potential to become life-threatening if the bacteria get inside the body through a wound or surgical incision. The infection then can spread to the blood, bones, or major organs, like the heart and lungs.

The Emergence of MRSA

Staph infections have become a greater public health threat since the development of MRSA, or methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus. Methicillin is an antibiotic in the penicillin family, and it used to easily get rid of staph. Although many staph infections can still be successfully treated with methicillin and similar medications, MRSA strains are highly resistant to many antibiotic treatments.

A MRSA infection is cause for great concern, particularly if it has spread from the skin. Although MRSA has a reputation for circulating in hospitals and healthcare facilities, as many as 12 percent of MRSA infections occur in the community and appear to be unrelated to a healthcare facility exposure.

Who Is at Risk for Staph Infections?

Staph bacteria, including MRSA, spread through direct skin-to-skin contact with an infected person. The bacteria also can spread through contact with items that have touched an infected person, such as towels, sheets, razors, sports equipment, or bandages.

Groups most at risk for developing a staph infection or MRSA infection include:

  • People who have been recently hospitalized
  • People in nursing homes or care facilities
  • People with weakened immune systems
  • Children in day care, where there is close child-to-child contact
  • Athletes who have skin-to-skin contact with each other or share equipment
  • Members of the military
  • People who get tattoos

Staph Skin Conditions and Complications

Staph infections and MRSA most often occur on parts of the body where there is hair or at the site of cuts and scrapes. The bacteria can cause skin conditions like:

  • Folliculitis. Staph bacteria get into hair follicles, causing small white pustules to develop on the skin. These pustules often are ringed by red skin.
  • Boils. A hair follicle infection can progress until it becomes a swollen, red lump on the skin called a boil. These lumps are very painful and usually swell with pus and grow larger until they rupture and drain.
  • Cellulitis. If the infection goes deeper into the skin, it can create a swollen, red area of skin that feels hot to the touch. As the area of cellulitis infection spreads, the infected person may feel feverish or ill.
  • Impetigo. Children are most affected by this type of staph infection, which causes blisters to form around the nose and mouth. These blisters can burst, drain, and then form crusty, honey-colored scabs.
  • Scalded skin syndrome. This form of staph infection creates a toxin that causes a rash all over the body. The rash causes the top layer of skin to slough off, exposing red and raw skin that resembles a scald or burn. Newborns and very young children are most often affected, and they require hospital treatment.

Staph infections, including MRSA, that have spread and progressed to a serious stage can cause symptoms like:

  • Fever
  • Chills
  • Fatigue and weakness
  • Headache
  • Muscle aches
  • Cough
  • Shortness of breath
  • Chest pain

Treating Staph Infections

Most staph skin infections can be avoided through the practice of good hygiene. That means you should wash any injury to the skin with an antibacterial soap or cleanser as soon as possible. Next, apply an antibiotic ointment and cover the skin with a clean bandage. You can take non-prescription pain relievers like aspirin, acetaminophen (Tylenol and others), or ibuprofen (Advil, Motrin, and others) to dull the ache of the infected site.

If a staph skin infection does develop, your doctor will either prescribe an antibiotic cream or an oral antibiotic to treat it. If so, be sure to carefully follow the dosage schedule and — most importantly — take all the pills provided to you, even if you start feeling better. If you don’t complete the full course of treatment, the staph infection may return in a form that will resist antibiotics. Serious staph infections can require hospitalization.

Stopping the Spread of Staph

To prevent the spread of staph bacteria and MRSA, you should:

  • Wash your hands often and thoroughly with soap and water or use an alcohol- based hand sanitizer.
  • Bathe or shower once a day; if you’re an athlete, shower immediately after every game and practice.
  • Keep all skin injuries clean and bandaged until they are healed.
  • Don't share any personal items, including towels and sports equipment.

Staph infections can quickly become dangerous. Seek medical attention as soon as possible and follow all of your doctor’s directions to the letter.

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