Staphylococcus aureus (pronounced staf-ill-oh-KOK-us AW-ree-us), or “Staph”, is a very common germ about a third of the population carries on their skin or in their nose. This bacteria does not cause a problem for most people who have it on their skin, but sometimes it can cause serious infections.
Methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus Aureus (MRSA) is a type of staph bacteria that is resistant to many antibiotics so is sometimes called a “superbug”.
In the community, most MRSA infections are skin infections that are minor (like a pimple, bump or boil) and can be treated with antibiotics. However, it can quickly turn into deep, painful abscesses that require surgical draining. Sometimes the bacteria remain confined to the skin, but they can also penetrate into the body, causing potentially life-threatening infections in bones, joints, surgical wounds, the bloodstream, heart valves and lungs. The vast majority of serious infections are linked to health care exposure like hospitals and nursing homes.
A few years ago the CDC and The Journal of the American Medical Association reported MRSA is killing more Americans each year than AIDS. That year there were nearly 19,000 MRSA deaths while roughly 16,000 people in the U.S. died from AIDS.
According to WebMD, bug bites, rashes, and other skin conditions can sometimes be confused with MRSA because the symptoms may be similar: red, swollen, warm, or tender.
ER doctors routinely ask patients who arrive with a painful spider bite whether they actually saw the spider, because these “bites” so often turn out to be MRSA instead. When a skin infection spreads or does not improve after 2-3 days on usual antibiotics, it may be MRSA.
How does MRSA spread?
MRSA can spread through physical contact with an infected person or something you’ve touched. Conditions that help to spread MRSA include: close skin-to-skin contact; cuts or scrapes in the skin; sharing personal hygiene articles such as razors and towels; and contact with contaminated items including door handles and athletic equipment.
Staph infections, including MRSA, occur most often in hospitals, nursing homes and facilities where people have weakened immune systems. MRSA also threatens police, firefighters and EMS workers, school kids and the community in general.
It also appears MRSA has jumped from humans to household pets, where it can linger without obvious symptoms — and possibly reinfect the pet owners. Only community-acquired strains have been found in cats and dogs so far. And WebMD reports MRSA has been found in the sand and water at beaches in Washington State.
What to do to reduce the spread of MRSA (and other infectious diseases)..
- Wash hands often using soap and water or use hand sanitizer (with at least 60% alcohol in it) to reduce the spread of germs. But keep in mind sanitizers don’t work against some bugs like C. diff so it’s best to wash up.
- Tell healthcare workers and visitors to wash their hands before they touch you or your stuff — don’t be timid! Also remember staph can reside on stethoscopes, blood pressure cuffs and other medical devices so ask if they’ve been cleaned lately.
- Use antibiotics only when absolutely necessary. Consider boosting your immune system to help fight infections.
- Keep cuts and scrapes clean and covered until healed.
- Clean counters, doorknobs, fixtures, phones, remotes, nurse call buttons, linens, etc. often with a bleach solution.
- Don’t share silverware, razors, clothing, towels, or bedding and wash objects with soap and hot water.
CDC’s MRSA page
CDC’s FAQs About MRSA (1-pg PDF)
WebMD’s MRSA Slideshow