Must-Know Facts About MRSA

Find out how to recognize symptoms of this antibiotic-resistant superbug – and what to do if you’re infected.

Medically reviewed in July 2021

As an ER doctor, I’m used to seeing difficult, antibiotic-resistant infections in patients. But historically those were patients who had stayed in the hospital for long periods of time, were older and frail, and were probably on a long list of medications.

That’s changing. While traditionally MRSA was “hospital acquired,” what appears to be growing is the rise of community-acquired MRSA. That means that people can catch it in public places or even in their own homes, not just hospital settings. So who gets MRSA? Anyone. Last week I treated a high school basketball player. The week before it was a daycare teacher. Healthy people are now being infected by this antibiotic-resistant superbug.

What is MRSA? MRSA stands for methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus. Essentially, that means it’s a bacteria that’s resistant to methicillin and other standard antibiotics once used to treat it. The community-acquired (CA-MRSA) form usually causes infections of the skin, such as cellulitis, abscesses or wounds that are frequently confused with spider bites. In patients who have weakened immune systems, MRSA can spread to the bloodstream and other organs, but in most otherwise healthy people, it will remain a skin infection. Unfortunately, since MRSA is resistant to our typical first-line antibiotics, physicians have to use more advanced antibiotics to treat the infection. This sometimes causes problems because these medications have more side effects or can interact with other medications you may be taking.

How do you get MRSA? MRSA is passed by direct contact. If you have a scrape or an open wound and touch someone who has the infection, it can be passed to you. Likewise, an item an infected person has used (such as a towel or razor) can spread the bug to you. In addition, about 2% of the population are “carriers” of MRSA, meaning they have the bacteria on their skin. They usually don’t get sick from it, but they can unknowingly spread it.

Are some people at higher risk? Certain groups are at higher risk of exposure, mostly due to physical contact and sharing equipment. These include athletes in contact sports (athletic mats and locker rooms are two key areas of transmission), children in daycare centers and anyone living in crowded conditions (such as military training camps and even prisons).

What can you do to prevent it?
A few key tips can minimize your risk of a MRSA infection:

  • Wash your hands frequently. Remember to wash for 20 seconds. It’s also a good idea to bathe/shower immediately after any athletic activity.
  • Keep any breaks to the skin (cuts, abrasions and other injuries) covered, clean and dry until they’re fully healed to avoid infection.
  • Avoid sharing personal items with other people—especially ones such as razors and towels.

What are signs of a MRSA infection?
It can often be difficult to distinguish a MRSA infection from a run-of-the mill skin infection, but when I’m seeing a patient, I look for a couple of signs. If there is any sign of an abscess (such as swelling beneath the skin), pus or drainage, or if the patient has a fever, I’ll be more likely to consider MRSA. A lot of my patients come in thinking they have a spider bite. But unless you actually saw the spider, it’s likely a MRSA infection.

What should you do if you think you have a MRSA infection?
Immediately make an appointment with your doctor to be evaluated. Antibiotics are still the mainstay of MRSA treatment, although it’s becoming more difficult to treat.

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