What Is a Staph Infection?
A staph infection is caused by staphylococcus (or "staph") bacteria. Actually, about 25% of people normally carry staph in their nose, mouth, genitals, or anal area and don't have symptoms of an infection. The foot is also very prone to picking up bacteria from the floor. The infection often begins with a little cut, which gets infected with bacteria. This can look like honey-yellow crusting on the skin.
These staph infections range from a simple boil to antibiotic-resistant infections to flesh-eating infections. The difference between all these is the strength of the infection, how deep it goes, how fast it spreads, and how treatable it is with antibiotics. The antibiotic-resistant infections are more common in North America because of our overuse of antibiotics.
This type of infection is very common in the general population—and more common and more severe in people with weak immune systems. People who have diabetes or weakened immunity are particularly prone to developing cellulitis.
Staph infection vs. methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus (MRSA)
If your staph is resistant to the treatments you use, you may develop MRSA. MRSA is a significant concern in both community and health care settings, as it can cause serious and potentially life-threatening infections that are challenging to control. A staph infection is a general term referring to infections caused by staphylococcus bacteria, while MRSA specifically refers to infections caused by Staphylococcus aureus strains that have developed resistance to methicillin and other beta-lactam antibiotics. MRSA is a type of staph infection that is more difficult to treat due to its antibiotic resistance.
Staph Infection Causes
Staph infection comes from bacteria. These bacteria can be transferred from person to person or from objects. Some ways you can get a staph infection include:
- Skin to skin contact such as at the gym
- Contaminated objects such as towels or bedding
- During surgery
- From medical devices such as catheters
- Poor hygiene, such as not washing your hands often enough
Staph Infection Risk Factors
Some factors may contribute to the likelihood of developing a staph infection. You may be more likely to develop a staph infection if you:
- Have a weakened immune system from a chronic illness or an underlying health condition
- Have a skin condition such as eczema
- Have recently stayed in a hospital
- Participate in contact sports
- Prepare food in an unsanitary way
Staph Infection Symptoms
Staph cellulitis usually begins as a small area of tenderness, swelling, and redness. Sometimes it begins with an open sore. Other times, there is no obvious break in the skin at all.
The signs of cellulitis are those of any inflammation—redness, warmth, swelling, and pain. Any skin sore or ulcer that has these signs may be developing cellulitis. If your staph infection spreads, you may develop a fever, sometimes with chills and sweats, as well as swelling in the area.
Other staph infections of the skin include impetigo, a painful rash that is contagious; boils; and staphylococcal scalded skin syndrome, which causes rash, blisters, and fever, in babies and young children.
On darker skin, staph infections may be more difficult to detect. The redness and inflammation associated with the infection may not appear as prominent as on lighter skin, making it important to pay close attention to any changes in the skin's appearance.
Staph Infection Treatment
Antibiotics are used to treat staph infections. But there's been a gradual change in how well these antibiotics work. While most staph infections used to be treatable with penicillin, stronger antibiotics are now used.
In about 50% of cases, however, resistance is seen to even these stronger antibiotics. These cases are no longer just happening in hospitals—as once was true—but now are occurring in the general community. That's been a problem. Many doctors are accustomed to using certain antibiotics, but those then fail because of antibiotic resistance. There are several more potent antibiotics now, but doctors need to know when to use them to prevent further antibiotic resistance.
There's another treatment sometimes used with staph infections. If the infection goes so deep that it involves muscles or fibers that enclose the muscles, it needs to be surgically cleaned.
Staph Infection Complications
There is a type of infection that can lead to septic shock if staph bacteria get into your bloodstream. The infection affects your whole body. Known as sepsis, this is a life-threatening condition where your blood pressure drops to a dangerously low level.
Staph Infection Prevention
You can take steps to help prevent staph infections. Any time you have a cut or skin breakdown, wash it with soap and water or over-the- counter hypochlorous acid or chlorhexadine, keep it clean and dry, and keep it covered. A diluted bleach bath twice a week may be helpful to prevent staph skin infections.
When handling food, especially after handling raw meat or poultry, it's particularly important to wash your hands.
A staph infection is contagious if the wound is weeping or draining and if people share towels or other items that are contaminated. Wearing foot coverings in locker rooms and other commonly used areas can help prevent contamination.
If the sore becomes unusually painful or red, get prompt medical attention. If red lines develop, that's a sign the infection is spreading and needs immediate medical attention.
How serious is a staph infection?
The seriousness of a staph infection can vary depending on several factors, including the type of infection, the site of infection, the overall health of the affected individual, and the promptness of treatment. In many cases, staph infections are mild and can be treated effectively with antibiotics. However, some staph infections can be severe and even life-threatening.
Many staph infections are minor and limited to the skin, causing conditions like boils, impetigo, or cellulitis. These infections are generally not life-threatening and can often be treated with oral antibiotics or topical ointments.
Staph infections can become more serious when the bacteria enter the bloodstream or deeper tissues. This can lead to conditions like bacteremia (bacterial bloodstream infection), sepsis (widespread infection and inflammation), pneumonia, bone and joint infections, and endocarditis (infection of the heart valves). These serious infections can be life-threatening and require immediate medical attention.
Staph infections are passed easily from person to person or through objects, particularly at places like the gym or hospital. These infections can be minor but can also be severe depending on how quickly and effectively treatment is received. Antibiotics are typically used to treat staph infections. Simple steps like maintaining good hygiene can help prevent infections.
Staph Infection FAQs
- What does a staph infection start like?
Commonly, a staph infection begins as a small red bump or pimple-like lesion on the skin.
- How do I get rid of staph?
Most staph infections can be treated with antibiotics administered by a doctor.