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Staph Infection (non-MRSA)

Staphylococcus aureus bacteria are often called “staph.” They are common germs that can cause a variety of problems. These range from mild skin infections to severe infections of the skin, deep tissues, lungs, bones, and blood. Staph are normally carried in the nose and on the skin by many healthy adults. Typically, they do not cause disease. But if the skin is broken or opened, staph can enter the body and cause infection. Staph infections are often easily treated with antibiotics. This sheet tells you more about staph infections and what you can do to avoid them.

How Does Staph Spread?

Closeup of lower face and neck. Staph infection sores on nose and near mouth.
Because staph is carried in the nose, skin infections often occur near the nose or mouth or both.

Staph spreads through direct contact with an infected person. This is often through skin-to-skin contact. It also spreads through contact with contaminated objects. These can include shared towels or athletic equipment.

What Are the Risk Factors for a Staph Infection?

Anyone can get a staph infection. Certain risk factors make it more likely, including:

  • Living or having close contact with someone who has staph

  • Having an open wound or sore

  • Playing contact sports or sharing towels or athletic equipment

  • A current or recent stay in a hospital or long-term care facility

  • A recent operation or wound treatment

  • Having a feeding tube or catheter (a tube placed in the body)

  • Receiving kidney dialysis

  • Having a weakened immune system or serious illness

  • Injecting illegal drugs

What Are the Symptoms of a Staph Infection?

Staph infections usually start in the skin. They sometimes appear as small red bumps that look like pimples or spider bites. These sores can turn into abscesses (pus-filled areas of infection). Staph infections can also spread deeper into the body, causing one or more of the following:

  • Infections in bones (osteomyelitis), muscles, and other tissues

  • Pneumonia (a serious lung infection)

  • Infection in a wound from an operation

  • Bacteremia (infection in the bloodstream)

  • Endocarditis (infection of the lining of the heart and the heart valves)

  • Infection of the urinary tract (bladder and kidneys)

  • Toxic shock syndrome (an illness caused by staph and the toxins it produces)

  • Scalded skin syndrome (a staph skin infection causing blisters and raw skin)

How Is a Staph Infection Diagnosed?

Minor skin infections are often diagnosed based on their appearance. With a more serious infection, testing may be done. Often, a sample of blood or urine is taken. A sample of drainage from a wound, sputum (mucus from the respiratory system), or infected tissue can also be used. The sample is sent to a lab and tested for staph.

How Is a Staph Infection Treated?

A minor skin infection is typically treated with an antibiotic. This is prescribed by a doctor. It may be an oral medication or an ointment placed on the skin. For a more severe infection, a powerful antibiotic may be given through an IV placed in the arm. If an abscess is present, it may be drained.

Preventing Staph Infections: What You Can Do

To reduce the spread of staph infections, keep cuts and scrapes clean and covered until they heal. Avoid contact with the wounds or bandages of others. Avoid sharing personal items such as towels, razors, clothing, and athletic equipment. And be sure to keep your hands clean. Your best option is washing your hands with warm water and soap. If that’s not possible, or if your hands aren’t visibly dirty, use a hand gel that contains at least 60 percent alcohol. 

  • Tips for good handwashing:

    • Use warm water and plenty of soap. Work up a good lather.

    • Clean the whole hand, under your nails, between your fingers, and up the wrists.

    • Wash for at least 15 seconds. Don’t just wipe. Scrub well.

    • Rinse, letting the water run down your fingers, not up your wrists.

    • Dry your hands well. Use a paper towel to turn off the faucet and open the door.

  • Using alcohol-based hand gels:

    • Use enough gel to get your hands completely wet.

    • Rub your hands together briskly. Be sure to clean the backs of your hands, the palms, between your fingers, and up the wrists.

    • Rub until the gel is gone and your hands are completely dry.

Taking Antibiotics Correctly

You may have heard of MRSA (methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus). This is a type of staph bacteria that is resistant, or hard-to-kill. This means the bacteria cannot be treated with many antibiotics (such as methicillin) that work on other types of staph. Resistant bacteria develop when antibiotics are not taken properly. This includes when they are taken longer than necessary, not long enough, or when they’re not needed. This is why your healthcare provider may not want to prescribe antibiotics unless he or she is certain they are needed. It’s also why any time you are prescribed antibiotics, you must take them exactly as your doctor tells you. This means not skipping doses, and taking the medication until it’s finished, even if you’re feeling better.

© 2000-2011 Krames StayWell, 780 Township Line Road, Yardley, PA 19067. All rights reserved. This information is not intended as a substitute for professional medical care. Always follow your healthcare professional's instructions.