A recent outbreak of MRSA at University of Pittsburgh’s Medical Center Children’s Hospital had people talking about the infection’s scariest attribute: It’s resistance to antibiotics. This tenacious staph infection affected 12 people in the intensive care unit—six of them babies—raising concerns about the bacteria’s contagiousness and apparent invulnerability. Fortunately, the disease can be treated, though it may be difficult to do depending on the location of the infection on the patient’s body. Here, we’ll break down what MRSA is, the symptoms you should be looking out for, and how to prevent it.
MRSA stands for methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus. It is a highly contagious staph bacteria that infects the skin and resists numerous antibiotics—including methicillin, which once successfully treated staph infections. In the past, doctors over-prescribed penicillin-related antibiotics like methicillin, allowing the bacteria to develop a heightened tolerance for them. Now treatment typically involves drainage of the infected area, culture testing of pus from the wound and stronger antibiotics. Though the infection is relatively uncommon—94,000 Americans are affected each year, and 19,000 die—two out of 100 people carry MRSA, according to the CDC. The bacteria do not usually cause a serious infection in carriers, but it can develop in others if it enters their bloodstream.
Symptoms arise when a red, swollen abscess appears on the body. It tends to look volcanic, with a white bump appearing between an area of reddened skin. Touching it will cause pain, but if you suspect you have the infection, gently feel the abscess to check if its emanating heat. If it is, you’re likely affected by a bacterial strain of some kind, and should seek a doctor for consultation. Pus and other drainage will likely ooze out of the affected area, and you’re likely to develop a fever. Although these symptoms are associated with MRSA, recognizing them on your body does not necessarily mean you have developed this specific infection. Only a doctor can make that distinction. While you don’t need to make a trip to the emergency room, you’ll want to make an appointment quickly. If left to fester, MRSA will infect the matter beneath the wound, which can result in a life-threatening situation. You will need to cover the abscess immediately, however. The bacteria will spread to every surface is touches, raising the chances that you will infect someone else.
Though MRSA is highly contagious, prevention is relatively easy. Washing your hands thoroughly—especially after hospital visits—will deter the infection almost entirely. Make sure you scrub them for 15 seconds and you use soap. Hand sanitizer brands with an alcohol content of at least 60 percent will also help you kill the bacteria. Of course, you’ll also need to cover up open wounds. A clean bandage will do, but make sure you change them regularly. While these instructions seem obvious, it is critical that you follow them because of how effective MRSA is at sticking to surfaces for lengthy periods of time. Depending on the type of material, the bacteria will remain for several days, weeks and even months. Washing your hands and covering your wounds will do much to quell the spread of the infection. You should also avoid sharing personal items like towels, razors, clothing and cosmetics. Because MRSA abscesses will spread germs to any item it touches, the bacteria will enter your bloodstream through open wounds and orifices if you are not careful.