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Staph Infections

Understanding Staph Infections


Updated June 24, 2014

Written or reviewed by a board-certified physician. See About.com's Medical Review Board.

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What is a Staph Infection?

A staph infection is an infection caused by the staphylococcus bacteria.  The most common type of infection causing staph is staphylococcus aureus, but there are many types of staph. Skin infections are the most common infections caused by staph, but staph can be present in infections in many other parts of the body ranging from incision sites, the heart and the brain.

In many, staph is found on the skin and in the respiratory tract as part of the "normal flora" bacteria that lives on the body.  The presence of staph can be completely normal and may not cause health problems in healthy individuals.

Infections Caused by Staph

When an staph infection is present, the severity can range from a minor skin infection that heals itself to a wide-spread systemic infection that can be life-threatening.  Staph is often responsible for common minor infections, such as boils, pimples and impetigo, but it can also be the cause of cellulitis, pneumonia, meningitis and endocarditis.  Sepsis, toxic shock syndrome and osteomyelitis are also among the most serious conditions that can be caused by staph.

Signs and Symptoms of Infection


Staph Infection After Surgery

After surgery, there is a risk of the incision becoming infected with staph, as the incision gives the bacteria direct access to the tissues and structures normally protected by intact skin.  Staph is one of the most common types of infection after surgery, whether that is an minor outpatient surgery, such as an ingrown toenail removal, or a more complex surgery.


Antibiotic Resistance, MRSA and VRSA

The treatment of choice for a staph infection initially was penicillin; however, many strains of staph are now penicillin resistant, meaning that they no longer respond to treatment with penicillin.  When penicillin resistance became common, methicillin was then used to treat staph infections. 

Methicillin Resistant Staphylococcus Aureus (MRSA), was initially rare outside of hospital acquired infections but now is becoming far more common in infections that start outside of the hospital setting.  MRSA, like staph aureus, can be present in healthy individuals without causing sickness, but can also lead to life-threatening infections.

When MRSA is suspected, alternative antibiotics such as clindamycin or linezolid are typically used.  A culture and sensitivity, a test that determines not only the bacteria causing the infection but also what antibiotics would offer the best treatment for that particular bacteria, is typically done prior to any antibiotics being given. 

Vancomycin Resistant Staphylococcus Aureus (VRSA) is also a potential threat, but there have been a miniscule number of cases at this time in the United States.  VRSA is a staph infection that does not respond to vancomycin, which is often used in the treatment of serious MRSA infections. 


Prevention of Staph Infections

Staph infections, including MRSA, are best prevented by good hand hygiene.  Hand washing with soap and water is the best way to prevent the spread of staph, and in the hospital setting special antimicrobial soaps such as Chlorhexidine may be used. For surgery patients, infection may be prevented with good incision care

For hospitalized patients who have MRSA, isolation precautions don't help treat the infection, but prevent the spread of infection to other patients.  This means that the hospital staff will wear disposable gowns and gloves, and use disposable equipment such as stethoscopes to prevent the infection from spreading. The door to the patient's room may also be kept closed.  


Risk Factors for Staph Infections

Some risks factors for developing a staph infection include having a surgical incision, being hospitalized, crowded living conditions, having a compromised immune system, diabetes, being very young or very old, and women with frequent urinary tract infections. 



Staphylococcal Infections. Medline Plus. Accessed December, 2013. http://www.nlm.nih.gov/medlineplus/staphylococcalinfections.html


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