What Is Staph Infection (Staphylococcus)?

The bacteria that cause a Staph Infections, 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?

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 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 sepsisThis 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.

“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

These commonsense precautions can help lower your risk of Staph Infection Symptoms:

  • Wash your hands. Careful hand-washing is your best defense against germs. Wash your hands briskly for at least 20 seconds, then dry them with a disposable towel and use another towel to turn off the faucet. If your hands aren’t visibly dirty, you can use a hand sanitizer containing at least 60 percent alcohol.
  • Keep wounds covered. Keep cuts and abrasions clean and covered with sterile, dry bandages until they heal. The pus from infected sores often contains staph bacteria, and keeping wounds covered will help keep the bacteria from spreading.
  • Reduce tampon risks. Toxic shock syndrome is caused by staph bacteria. Since tampons left in for long periods can be a breeding ground for staph bacteria, you can reduce your chances of getting toxic shock syndrome by changing your tampon frequently, at least every four to eight hours. Use the lowest absorbency tampon you can, and try to alternate tampons with sanitary napkins whenever possible.
  • Keep personal items personal. Avoid sharing personal items such as towels, sheets, razors, clothing and athletic equipment. Staph infections can spread on objects, as well as from person to person.
  • Wash clothing and bedding in hot water. Staph bacteria can survive on clothing and bedding that isn’t properly washed. To get bacteria off clothing and sheets, wash them in hot water whenever possible.Also, use bleach on any bleach-safe materials. Drying in the dryer is better than air-drying, but staph bacteria may survive the clothes dryer.
  • Take food safety precautions. Wash your hands before handling food. If food will be out for a while, make sure that hot foods stay hot — above 140 F (60 C) — and that cold foods stay at 40 F (4.4 C) or below. Refrigerate leftovers as soon as possible.

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