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Staph Infection: What You Need to Know

Appropriate precautions can help protect you against MRSA infection

A smiling health care professional wearing scrubs and a stethoscope pauses in the hallway of a hospital

by John Spinosa, MD

There has been a lot of talk in the media lately about MRSA infection, a type of infection caused by a specific strain of bacteria that is resistant to antibiotics.

Some of these reports can be very alarming, and indeed, MRSA can be serious. However, it is not a common infection, and by taking a few precautions, you can help prevent its spread and keep yourself healthy.

What is MRSA?

MRSA, or methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus is a type of bacteria known as Staphylococcus aureus, or simply, staph. Staph bacteria are commonly found on the skin or in the nose. However, staph does not always cause infection; in fact, about 25% of healthy people carry staph. This is known as being colonized with staph.

When staph does cause infection, it is most often a minor skin infection that doesn’t require antibiotic treatment, such as a pimple or boil. Sometimes, though, staph infections are quite serious and can lead to pneumonia, infections of the bloodstream, urinary tract or surgical wounds, and other illnesses that do require antibiotics.

Some types of staph, including MRSA, are resistant to certain antibiotics, and this is why they can be so difficult to treat. MRSA is resistant to a class of antibiotics known as beta-lactams, which includes methicillin, penicillin, oxacillin, and amoxicillin.

Who gets MRSA?

MRSA most often affects patients in hospitals, nursing homes and other health care facilities whose immune systems are already weakened. Many hospitals are putting measures in place to prevent the spread of MRSA among their patients.

At Scripps Memorial Hospital La Jolla, for example, we test every patient admitted to the ICU to see if they carry the MRSA bacteria, and isolate those who test positive. We also isolate patients outside of the ICU who are found to have MRSA, as well as patients who once had the infection and are readmitted to the hospital, since the bacteria can live in the body.

Since only one percent of the general population is colonized with MRSA, this type of infection is uncommon outside of the hospital environment. However, recently we have seen a growing number of cases among healthy people who have not been in a hospital or health care facility within the past year. We refer to these cases as community-associated MRSA (CA-MRSA).

CA-MRSA infections usually look like a pimple or boil and may be red and swollen. The infection site may be painful or have a discharge. If you think you may have a skin infection, call your physician.

Most staph and MRSA infections are treatable with certain types of antibiotics, but MRSA is more difficult to treat since the organism may be resistant to multiple classes of antibiotics. In some cases, your doctor may treat the infection by draining it instead of or addition to using antibiotics.

How is MRSA spread?

CA-MRSA infections are most often spread by skin-to-skin contact with someone who carries the bacteria or with contaminated surfaces. These infections tend to occur in situations where there are scrapes and cuts such as with athletes and young children.

Sharing of towels and athletic equipment may be a risk factor. Poor hygiene and crowded living conditions may also play a role in spreading infection.

Safeguarding against MRSA

To help protect yourself, practice good personal hygiene and keep these guidelines in mind:

  • Wash your hands often and thoroughly with soap and water or an alcohol-based hand sanitizer.
  • If you have cuts or scrapes, keep them clean and bandaged until healed. Avoid touching other people’s wounds or bandages.
  • Don’t share personal items such as towels, razors or makeup.
  • Dry clothes and towels in a hot dryer rather than air-drying them. The heat helps kill bacteria.
  • Keep shared surfaces clean and sanitized. For example, if you work out at a gym, wipe off the equipment before and after using it and wash your hands after working out.

This Scripps Health and Wellness information was provided by John Spinosa, MD, a pathologist and the incoming Chief of Staff at Scripps Memorial Hospital La Jolla.