Staph infection: What is MRSA?

My neighbors work at a center in the area for physically and mentally developmentally challenged people. One of them has contracted a disease called MRSA which they claim is a high contagious form of staph infection. The say it is widespread among health care workers, and is resistant to antibiotics. I have never heard of this disease before. They say that, like herpes, it never goes away, but is treatable with the right medication. Should I be worried? How contagious is this?

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Robert Steele

Robert W. Steele, MD, is a board certified pediatrician at St. John's Regional Health Center in Springfield, MO. He graduated from medical... Read more

What you are referring to is MRSA which stands for methicillin resistant Staph aureus. It is a bacteria rather than a disease which is where much of the confusion and panic seems to originate. Therefore, let me try to put some perspective on what this bacteria is and is not.

Staphylococcus aureas or Staph aureus or just plain Staph is a bacteria found on the skin of everybody. It is also found most anywhere in the environment. Most of the time, this bacteria lives happily on the skin without causing any problems. However, when we get a bug bite, scratch, or anything that breaks the skin, this bacteria may creep in and cause an infection. It also may be inhaled and cause pneumonia although this is rather uncommon in children and healthy adults. It is usually the much older set or those with immune deficiency problems that get pneumonia with this particular bacteria. Staph can multiply on food releasing a toxin that causes vomiting and diarrhea which usually resolves with time. And Staph can infect the bloodstream of IV drug abusers who use dirty needles. The point is Staph can cause a lot of different types of infections but it usually doesn't in otherwise healthy people. So, who does get serious Staph infections? Mostly it is those who have just had surgery and have skin that is open and healing; Or perhaps the older adult in a nursing home who has trouble clearing secretions with coughing.

Most Staph are sensitive to simple antibiotics. So, when the typical child gets a cut on the leg which gets infected, simple antibiotics by mouth clears things up rather well. Unfortunately, the overuse of antibiotics has made these simple Staph a little harder to kill. In some hospitals (particularly intensive care units) and nursing homes where antibiotic use is often high, there is a higher prevalence of resistant Staph. When Staph become resistant to methicillin (a simple type of penicillin), they are given the name MRSA. This does not mean those particular staph are any more likely to cause infection, it just means if they do cause infection, they will be much harder to kill.

In other words, I may have some Staph on my body that are resistant, but that doesn't mean I'm any more likely to get a skin infection with my next scratch. Nor does it mean I'm any more contagious than the guy standing next to me with regular Staph on his body. However, it does mean should I get a skin infection with it, I wouldn't be able to take the simple antibiotics by mouth, but rather I would need IV antibiotics.

Wil, the seriousness of MRSA is twofold:

  1. Those who have MRSA are at risk of transmitting it to someone else. While this isn't really a problem for otherwise healthy people, if it is transmitted to the sick or the elderly, it can cause significant problems because they are the ones that are more at risk for developing these types of infections.
  2. It is a warning signal about the overuse of antibiotics. Infections with MRSA are now primarily treated with one antibiotic called vancomycin. If the MRSA bacteria become resistant to vancomycin (and there has now been one report from Japan), we will be left with little to treat it.

 

Watch Video: Deadly Staph Infection

 

 
 
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