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Simple Ways to Stop the Spread of Staph and MRSA

Simple Ways to Stop the Spread of Staph and MRSA

Cuts, scrapes and other open wounds could increase your risk for a staph infection.

Odds are you’ve heard of staph (Staphylococcus aureus) or MRSA (methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus), types of bacteria that can cause potentially dangerous and tough-to-treat infections. But what you may not realize is that these microscopic organisms may be living on your body right now. 

In fact, more than 50 percent of healthy people have staph in their noses, throats, hair or skin, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). Roughly two in every 100 people also carry MRSA in their noses but most of these people don’t develop serious infections as a result.

All bacteria have a specific environment that is their ideal breeding ground, says Maulikkumar Patel, MD, an internist at Memorial Health University Medical Center in Savannah, Georgia. “Staph likes to live on the skin so that’s predominantly where we see it,” he explains. 

For the most part, staph that lives on the surface of the skin is relatively harmless. But when it gets into your body—such as through an open cut, wound or scrape—it can cause problems. “Staph has the ability to get under our skin, literally and figuratively,” says Dr. Patel. “And when it does, that’s when we start to see the common manifestations of an infection.” 

Since MRSA is resistant to some antibiotics, it’s more difficult to treat and could lead to more serious complications, such as sepsis, which is a life-threatening response to infection. 

“Staph infections were originally cured with penicillin,” says Patel. “But what has happened is that the bacteria, as we’ve developed medication to kill it, has developed its own way to resist antibiotics.” 

There are different antibiotics to target certain forms of staph infections, including MRSA, but understanding how staph spreads and how you can avoid exposure could help reduce your risk for infection, Patel advises. 

How staph spreads 
Staph can spread directly from one person to the next by touching contaminated hands or skin. Staph could also spread through the sharing of commonly used items, such as towels, makeup, clothing, razors, door handles, athletic equipment and remote controls. The bacteria are resilient and can live on some surfaces for hours, days or even weeks, depending on the material. For instance, staph can survive on cotton for up to 21 days or on polyester for up to 40 days. 

Staph and MRSA can also spread among groups of people living or spending time in unsanitary or crowded environments, such as long-term care facilities, military training camps, childcare centers and prisons. Playing contact sports, which can result in cuts and abrasions, also ups your odds of developing a staph infection through contact with another person’s skin or shared equipment.

Keep in mind, people who are carrying staph can spread the bacteria to others—even if they don’t have signs of infection.

In most cases, staph infections are limited to the skin, potentially leading to:

Folliculitis: Tiny, acne-like breakouts that occur when bacteria invade the hair follicles and cause an infection. 
Boils: Warm, pus-filled bumps that form underneath the skin if hair follicles become deeply infected. 
Impetigo: An infection that usually affects children, which causes red sores to form on the face around the nose and mouth. These sores rupture and ooze before forming a yellowish crust. The infection may be spread to other parts of the body by contaminated hands, clothes and towels.   
Stye: A red, tender bump that forms on the edge of the eyelid when the gland becomes infected.    
Cellulitis: A deeper and more serious skin infection that spreads to the tissue underneath the skin, causing redness, tenderness and in more serious cases, pain, chills or fever. 

People who are carriers of staph can also contaminate food they are handling or preparing if they don’t wash their hands first. The bacteria can produce toxins that lead to food poisoning. 

If left untreated, a staph infection on the skin can spread to the bloodstream, joints, bones, lungs or heart, leading to serious complications. The risks of infection are even higher for those with weakened immune systems and people with chronic conditions like diabetes, kidney disease and rheumatoid arthritis.

“The immune system is like our body's own infantry to fight off any bacteria, virus or infection,” says Patel. “But people with compromised immune systems aren’t able to respond to fight off germs and infections as the average person would, so they’re also more likely to have more severe forms of staph infections.” 

Intravenous (IV) drug users, men who have sex with other men, hospitalized patients undergoing medical procedures and those with surgically implanted medical devices or medical tubes, such as urinary catheters or feeding tubes, are also at greater risk for a staph infection.

How to avoid staph
Maintaining good personal hygiene habits is the number one way to lower your risk of any type of staph infection, according to Patel. This includes washing your hands well and often.

“Thoroughly washing your hands with soap and water for the right amount of time, using the right technique, is the best way to protect yourself,” he says. 

This means rubbing your soapy hands together for at least 20 seconds, or long enough to sing the ABCs. Be sure to clean the backs of your hands, the areas between your fingers and under your nails before rinsing your hands with water.

“You'll be surprised the number of times I've been in a public restroom where I've seen people walk out without washing their hands properly,” says Patel. “It’s scary.” 

If you don’t have access to soap and water, using an alcohol-based hand sanitizer is a good alternative—if you choose the right one and use it properly. Look for a hand sanitizer than contains at least 60 percent alcohol, the CDC recommends. Before applying the liquid or gel, remove as much dirt or debris from your hands as possible. Read the product label for instructions and use as much as directed to ensure its effectiveness. Then, rub the sanitizer over all surfaces of your hands until they are dry.

Patel recommends taking these additional precautions to help reduce your risk of infection:

  • Keeping cuts and scrapes clean and covered
  • Avoiding contact with other people’s wounds or cuts
  • Resisting the temptation to share towels, razors or other personal items
  • Removing sweaty clothes and showering after exercise, sports or other physical activities
  • Protecting your skin by moisturizing with lotion or petroleum jelly after showering
  • Cleaning all sports equipment with an antiseptic solution
  • Avoiding saunas or hot tubs if you notice a person with an open sore using them
  • Minimizing your contact with locker room surfaces. Always put a clean towel down on benches or floors before you sit or stand.   
  • Wearing shower shoes in gyms and public facilities, particularly if you have open wounds or blisters on your feet
  • Regularly disinfecting surfaces like counters, doorknobs, phones and computer keyboards
  • Sanitizing linens—especially when you have a cut or sore—using hot water, the hottest setting on your dryer and, if possible, bleach
  • Washing gym clothes after each use

When to see your doctor 
If you do develop a staph infection, your symptoms will usually depend on where the infection is located. A cut, bug bite or other wound that becomes infected with staph or MRSA may lead to red, swollen, pus-filled spots on the skin. The area may be warm and painful to the touch and you may develop a fever. 

See your doctor right away if you notice any of these symptoms. Early treatment of a staph infection is key, notes Patel. 

“Check yourself periodically for cuts and abrasions in the crevices of your hands and feet,” he recommends. If you notice something concerning, talk to your doctor. It’s important to identify and treat an infection before it worsens and spreads to your bloodstream, Patel adds. 

Most infections are easily treated with oral or topical antibiotics. More serious infections, including those caused by MRSA, may require different antibiotics or a longer course of treatment. In some cases, IV antibiotics may be necessary. If the infection surrounds a surgical device, your doctor may recommend surgery to remove the device. Sometimes, draining pus or clearing out the infected wound can also promote healing.

Medically reviewed in July 2019.

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