The Main Hot Spot for MRSA
Why do so many people carry staph germs? Because the human body is the staph bacterium's natural habitat, says Gordon Dickinson, MD, chief of infectious diseases at the University of Miami and the Miami VA Medical Center.
"We are the ecology," Dickinson tells WebMD. "Humans are the ecological niche for Staphylococcus aureus. MRSA is just a variant."
This means the No. 1 hot spot for MRSA is: your nose.
"It can live in moist areas of the skin -- like under the arms, in the groin -- but you find it mainly inside the front of the nose," Dickinson says.
Whose nose? There's a very good chance it's your own.
"Our current understanding is that 20% of healthy people never seem to carry staph, while up to 60% carry it sometimes," Dickinson says. "And 20% of healthy people carry staph day in and day out, usually in their noses."
Most of these people carry the normal kind of staph. But an increasing number carry MRSA. Why doesn't it hurt them?
"We don't understand why staph causes mischief. Most of the time it does not," Dickinson says. "But presumably, little breaks in the skin allow it to get past our barriers. Then it can multiply -- and staph comes with a bundle of proteins and toxins and enzymes that allow it to do a lot of damage."
So how can you stop staph from getting from the front of your nose to your skin?
"Theoretically, one thing people can do is quit picking their noses. But that won't help -- studies show people can't keep their hands away from their noses," Dickinson says.
Fortunately, there are a number of ways to prevent infection with both normal staph and MRSA.
MRSA may be the latest scary germ to grab headlines, but good old-fashioned hygiene is the key to protection.
Here's how to keep MRSA at bay:
- Wash your hands. Your hands are the part of your body most likely to pick up a germ and transfer it to an itchy sore, your eyes, your mouth, or your nose. So keep them clean. Use soap and warm water -- the rule of thumb is to scrub gently and thoroughly as long as it takes to sing the alphabet song.
- Got a cut or scrape? Clean it -- and cover it with a bandage until it heals.
- Avoid contact with other people's wounds or bandages.
- Do not share towels, razors, or other personal items.
- Shower right away after exercise, especially at the gym. Don't toss your wet towel in your gym bag. Clean and disinfect any gym bag that's come into contact with dirty athletic gear.
- Wash all athletic clothing daily. Regularly wash athletic gear such as elbow pads and kneepads.
- Bathe every day. MRSA can live on the skin, but it can be washed away. Staph can enter the body through hair follicles, so be particularly careful to clean your groin, underarms, arms, and legs.
- Be on the lookout for infections. Early on, a staph infection looks like a spider bite (a red, irritated bump). Don't wait -- have a nurse or doctor look at it.
- If you have an infection, don't try to squeeze out the pus. This only spreads germs on your skin. Have ALL infections treated by a health professional.
- Practice careful hygiene when visiting crowded facilities such as prisons, military bases, shelters, hospitals, and schools.