Staph Infections: What Are They and When Should You Worry?

Signs and symptoms of staph and MRSA infections

The bacteria that causes a staph infection, staphylococcus aureus, is all around us all the time. It lives on surfaces and on the ground. You may also carry it on your skin and in your nose. But how does it go from harmless companion to troublesome foe?

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Staph can enter your body through any nick or cut in the skin. The infections that then may take hold are usually minor, but sometimes quite serious.

“Typically, we get along with staphylococcus just fine,” says family medicine physician Donald Ford, MD, MBA. “It’s harmless and it usually doesn’t cause any problems or it results in a minor skin infection.”

But staph can become life-threatening if it somehow finds its way into your bloodstream, joints, bones, lungs or heart.

Types of staph infections

Types of staph infections include:

  • Blisters — These look similar to a whitehead or a pimple. Once it breaks open and the pus drains out, the infection’s threat goes away.
  • Boils — Deeper than blisters, with the skin surrounding a boil appears red, swollen and sore. It’s often very painful.
  • Impetigo — This contagious skin infection looks like a rash with a yellow crust. Impetigo sometimes secretes fluid and also is painful. You often see impetigo among children. It’s typically not serious and can be treated with a topical antibiotic.
  • Cellulitis — This skin inflammation occurs when your infection gets under the layers of your skin and spreads. It causes redness and painful swelling. You may even develop sores. Cellulitis can become more serious if it’s not treated immediately.
  • Sepsis — If your skin infection is severe it can progress to a more advanced stage known as sepsis. This inflammation, which enters your bloodstream, is more dangerous to older adults.
  • Endocarditis — Endocarditis occurs when staph enters your bloodstream and attacks your heart. Doctors typically treat it with strong antibiotics. Surgery is sometimes necessary if the infection damages your heart valves.

Treatment options for a staph infections

Most staph infections are easy to treat and typically respond well to antibiotics or by draining the infected area, Dr. Ford says.

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“We treat more superficial skin infections such as impetigo for a few days,” he says. “A deeper boil or an abscess can take up to a few weeks to heal. Treating a blood infection is a much more serious thing and it may result in a prolonged course of treatment. ”

Some staph infections, particularly MRSA (methicillin-resistant staphylococcus aureus), have developed a resistance to certain antibiotics.

While MRSA commonly causes skin infections, it can cause more serious infections. The infected wound may require surgical or local drainage. Your doctor likely will prescribe a stronger antibiotic to treat it as well.

How to prevent a staph infection

Since staph is all around us, it’s not uncommon for a perfectly healthy person to get a staph infection. The best way to avoid it is to maintain good hygiene, Dr. Ford says.

“Wash your hands, particularly after you’ve been working in the soil or working with food products,” he says. “Make sure food is properly prepared, clean and fresh because if your food gets exposed to staph you can get staph-related food poisoning.”

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If you get a cut on your skin, treat it immediately. Wash it with soap and water, dry your skin and cover it with a bandage.

If you think you have a staph infection, Dr. Ford suggests bringing it to your doctor’s attention or going to an emergency care center.

“Staph is sometimes a serious infection if left untreated. So it’s always a good idea to go see your doctor or another health care provider if you’re worried you might have a staph infection,” Dr. Ford says.

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