Most of us have heard about staph infections, or perhaps been scared by the term "MRSA," but do we really know what these infections are? Of course it's important to have any infection you may have evaluated by your healthcare provider, but first it's important to understand a little about Staph and what to look for.
Staph is an abbreviation we use for the bacteria known as Staphlyococcus. This particular bacteria has many different subtypes, but the most common is Staphlyococcus Aureus. From the family of Staph bacteria, it is this Staph Aureus that causes most skin infections, but can also be the causative agent for other ailments such as food poisoning, toxic shock syndrome and pneumonia. For purposes of our dermatology blog, we will be focusing on the skin infections associated with the Staph bacteria.
We have bacteria, such as Staph, that lives on our skin at all times. This is normal. Sometimes, these bacteria can get into the skin where it shouldn't be and cause infections. These infections can be found anywhere on the skin. The Staph bacteria will need a point at which to enter the skin, that may be from a known injury, or perhaps a minor compromise in your skin barrier that you are not aware of. Staph infections can range from very mild to severe and can take many forms. Most of us think of infections as red sores with pus, though this is one form of an infection, there are other ways this bacteria can manifest in your skin.
Commonly, minor Staph infections may start out by looking like a small pimple, a red bump with a small center of white pus. There may be pain associated with it, or perhaps you experience itching or even no symptoms at all. Simple care with warm soapy water and a topical antibiotic ointment should be enough to cure a minor Staph infection with little associated symptoms. However, this pimple can grow to create a boil, which appears with swelling, firmness and tenderness. Boils can get large and fill with pus and dead skin tissue. These lesions will need to be drained, either naturally on their own, or surgically by your healthcare provider. You can start treatment at home with warm compresses and keeping the area clean with warm soapy water and topical over the counter antibacterial ointment. If the lesion opens on its own, allow the pus to drain naturally. You want to avoid squeezing the lesion or cutting it yourself as this may spread the infection. Continuation of warm compresses may help speed up the process. If the boil is not opening, is very deep or has been present for more than one to two weeks, it is important to seek immediate medical attention for drainage and treatment with topical, oral and or IV antibiotics as indicated.
Cellulitis is a deep skin infection that presents as swollen, red, warm areas of skin located to one general area. There may not be a known injury or any signs of a sore or pus. This type of Staph infection can be asymptomatic, but is often painful and hot. Along with general inflammation of the skin, you may develop systemic symptoms as well including fever and flu-like symptoms. The skin may appear tight and muscle pain may be noted. It is important to seek help from your healthcare provider as this infection can spread into your blood and give you a systemic infection. Your healthcare provider will check for swollen lymph nodes and may test your blood to identify the type of infection to ensure you receive the best treatment. You will be put on antibiotics to clear the infection and once at home, you should keep the area elevated to reduce swelling and rest until the infection has cleared.
Impetigo is a common skin infection caused by staph that occurs more so in children. This eruption is commonly found around the nose and mouth. Our noses house many different types of bacteria as it filters the air as we breathe. This particular staph infection which can stem from Staph bacteria in the nose will appear as a red patch with small red bumps or small pustules that may ooze pus or a clear fluid. This fluid often crusts over the affected area creating honey colored scabs. Impetigo is a superficial infection that has a low risk for more serious complications. It is often spread by contact with someone else's sores or nasal discharge that has the infection. One can spread the eruption on themselves by scratching at the area, as it may be itchy. You will more than likely only need a prescription topical antibiotic to treat this condition, but more severe cases may require oral therapy. A culture may be taken to ensure the correct bacteria if being treatment with your medication.
MRSA is an acronym for methicillin resistant staphylococcus aureus. This is the bacterial infection that started out as an infection patients in hospitals acquired, but is it has now spread out into the community. Methicillin is the first line antibiotic that used to be used to treat staph infections. It was used so much, that now the staph bacteria has become resistant to its curative effects. This means that other stronger antibiotics may need to be used to treat these staph infections. This MRSA acts as normal staph infections in that it will require a portal of entry in the skin. This again can be from a minor injury to perhaps an opening in a hair follicle. MRSA is spread by direct contact with someone else who is infected. Not all people who have MRSA on their skin have active infections; some people are simply carriers of the bacteria but can spread it and cause infections to others. People at higher risk for getting infected with MRSA are those with a lowered immune system, athletes who come in close contact with one another and healthcare providers, just to name a few. Most commonly, MRSA will appear as a sore or boil that is painful and does not resolve with conventional at home treatment methods (warm compresses, cleaning and dressing of the wound and topical over the counter antibiotic ointments). You may also experience fever, flu-like symptoms or other systemic manifestations of the infection. It is important to seek medical attention immediately if you think you may have MRSA or have a known contact. Your healthcare provider will likely culture the wound or may test your blood. Antibiotics will be required, either oral or IV depending on severity. Some patients are in need of hospitalization due to possible complications of the bacteria. It is important to recognize the symptoms of MRSA and get treatment as soon as possible for your own health as well as to reduce the risk of spreading the infection to others.
With so many different forms of infection, it can be scary to think about getting any of them. You can take measures at home to help prevent infections caused by the Staph bacteria:
Keep your skin clean with an antibacterial soap.
Keep your skin moisturized to prevent unnecessary cracking of the skin and subsequent compromise of your protective barrier due to dryness.
Use clean wash cloths and towels and don't share these items with others.
Of most importance, remember what your mother taught you when you were a child, always wash your hands and do so frequently!
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