MRSA and Staph Infection: Symptoms and Treatment
What is Staph Infection?
"Staph" is short for Staphylococcus, a type of bacteria. There are over thirty different types of staph bacteria, but Staphylococcus aureus causes the most infections. Types of staph infection include:
- Skin infections (the most common)
- Food poisoning
- Toxic shock syndrome
- Blood poisoning (bacteremia)
Like most healthy people, you probably already have staph bacteria on your body, in your nose, or in your throat. And most of the time, the bacteria don't cause any problems, or if they do, it's usually a minor skin infection. But, sometimes, the bacteria will burrow deep into your body and invade your bloodstream, urinary tract, lungs, and heart, which can prove fatal.
In the past, most fatal staph infections occurred in people who were hospitalized or who already had a chronic illness or a weakened immune system. But now a growing number of healthy people are developing life-threatening staph infections. In some areas of the United States, deadly staph infections are said to be more common than AIDS.
It's of great concern for public health that many strains of staph bacteria no longer respond to common antibiotics. Although staph infections can still be successfully treated, it may only be a matter of time before the bacterium evolves and becomes resistant to all other current medications.
Causes of Staph Infection
Staph bacteria can cause illness in two different ways: (1) through direct infection and (2) through toxins that the bacteria produce. The toxins are to blame for food poisonings, toxic shock syndrome, and other illnesses caused by MRSA and CA-MRSA.
A staph infection can be caused in many ways.
- Skin infections develop when staph bacteria enter your body via a cut or abrasion in your skin. Eczema, psoriasis, shaving irritations, and other conditions that make your skin more fragile and sensitive will enhance the risk of infection.
- Food poisoning is caused by eating bacteria-containing foods that are not handled or stored properly. Because bacteria grow best at room temperatures, remember to refrigerate high-risk foods such as potatoes, eggs, mayonnaise, cream, and custards.
- Toxic shock syndrome was often fatal in the 1980s, and was linked to the used of super-absorbent tampons, as tampons are a great breeding ground for the bacteria. The tampons can also irritate the vagina, making it possible for bacteria to enter the bloodstream. But, toxic shock syndrome can affect men and children infected by means other than tampons.
- Septic arthritis is caused when staph bacteria spread to a joint from an infection in another part of the body. Rheumatoid arthritis increases the risk of this kind of infection because arthritis medications suppress the immune system.
- MRSA (short for methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus) is a form of staph infection that emerged in hospitals and is now a growing threat in health care facilities worldwide. In hospitals and nursing homes, MRSA can spread on the hands of health care workers and on many surfaces including bedrails, catheters, cart handles, and even remote controls. The staph bacteria involved are resistant to penicillin-type antibiotics.
CA-MRSA (community-acquired MRSA) is a term for drug-resistant staph infection acquired outside health facilities. People discharged from hospitals may harbor drug-resistant bacteria in their nostrils, and these bacteria can spread further in the community.
Different modes of infection can have different signs and symptoms.
- Cellulitis (potentially life-threatening infection that can leave the skin inflamed and tender)
- Impetigo (rash common in young children and infants)
- Scalded-skin syndrome (blistering condition that mainly affects newborns)
In general, the signs of each of the above conditions include skin redness, swelling, fever, warmth in the area, and tenderness.
Symptoms usually begin as soon as six hours after eating, and can end suddenly. Most people fully recover after a day or two. The most common symptoms of food poisoning are abdominal cramps, nausea, vomiting, and diarrhea.
Toxic shock syndrome
- High fever
- Nausea and vomiting
- Rash, resembling sunburn, on the palms of the hands and soles of the feet
- Muscle aches
Usually the knees are targeted, but other joints such as ankles, hips, wrists, elbows, and shoulders can be affected by the bacteria. The symptoms are swelling and severe pain in the joint, fever, and shaking chills.
Methicillin-resistant staphylococcus aureus (MRSA)
- Starts as a superficial skin issue, resembling a pimple or spider bite
- Quickly turns into a deep, painful abscess
In surgical wounds the signs are severe pain, redness, swelling, and sometimes draining pus.
In general signs can include fever, sweats, and chills.
Other symptoms may vary according to which parts of the body were infected, as the bacteria can enter the bloodstream, bones, heart lining, and lungs. Symptoms of MRSA infection in the lungs can include pneumonia (coughing, shortness of breath, chest pains).
Staph Infection From a Bug Bite
Doctors can diagnose staph infection by taking a tissue sample or nasal secretion. The sample is sent to a lab to check for bacteria growth. But because the test normally takes 48 hours, people who have MRSA can worsen or even die within that time frame. New tests can detect the staph bacteria DNA in a matter of hours, but these tests are much more expensive and not as widely used.
Penicillin was once effective antibiotic treatment against the staph bacteria, but as bacteria can evolve, it will. After society had been using penicillin for just a decade, half of staph bacteria became resistant to the antibiotic, and now less than 10% of staph infections will respond to penicillin.
Today, doctors use vancomycin, which is a much stronger and more toxic antibiotic. Although vancomycin is effective in saving the lives of those who suffer severe staph infections, it is used rather frequently, which makes it likely that the bacteria will evolve once again and become resistant to it. A few cases have already been recorded in which bacteria did not respond to vancomycin. Doctors are trying to use the antibiotic only when it's really necessary, in order to hinder the continued evolution of the bacteria.
A few newer antibiotics are available to treat staph infections, but they are much more expensive, and bacteria have shown signs of developing resistance to these as well.
You can lower your risk by using common-sense precautions.
- Wash your hands and use hand sanitizer.
- Keep wounds covered and clean.
- Watch the high-risk foods that you eat and avoid any foods that have not been stored and cooked properly.
- Reduce tampon risks by changing frequently (at least every 4-8 hours) or switching usage between tampons and sanitary pads.
- Keep your personal items personal by not sharing towels, sheets, razors, clothing, and athletic equipment.
- Get tested so that you have time to get treated in case you do have a staph infection.
Although anyone can contract staph infection, as staph is a bacterium that we all have in our skin, certain populations are at higher risk for MRSA and CA-MRSA.
- Current or recent stay in a hospital.
- Long-term stay in a care facility.
- Use of invasive devices such as catheters or feeding tubes.
- Youth. Children do not have fully-developed immune systems.
- Old age. With age, our immune systems begin to decline, making us more subject to illnesses.
- Contact sports. Skin-to skin-contact, abrasions, and cuts are three ways bacteria can spread.
- Sharing towels or athletic equipment.
- Having a weakened immune system.
- Living in crowded or unsanitary conditions.
Pets With Staph Infection
Yes, believe it or not, your pets can contract staph infections, just like you can.
Watch for excessive scratching, as that is the most common cause of staph infection in pets. Other causes include fleas, inhalant allergy, food allergy, and flea and tick dips. All of these factors can enhance itching.
Watch for a red area on the skin that has a pimple-like bump in the middle. Sometimes staph infection can resemble ringworm. Most of the time it will appear as a crusty abrasion on your dog's belly. Your vet can diagnose infection in your dog or cat by making skin cultures or a biopsy, and can treat your pet.
But, don't worry. You can't catch the staph bacteria from your dog or cat because you already have the bacteria on your skin. And, no, staph is not contagious from your dog or cat to you.
Disclaimer: Please be aware that the advice in this article should in no way replace that of a licensed physician or veterinarian. Consult your doctor or veterinarian if you think that you or your pet might have a staph infection.