The bacterium Staphylococcus aureus—staph for short—is so named because when viewed through a microscope, it is berry-shaped and exists in grapelike clusters that have a golden yellow pigment. The root staphyl(e), originally from ancient Greek, refers to a bunch of grapes; coccus, from Latin, refers to something spherical, like a berry; and aureus, also Latin, means golden. Staph is a gram-positive bacterium, meaning that it stains purple when tested because it has a single outer membrane rather than many, making it more permeable to antibiotics (Fig.). Staph infections are therefore often successfully treated with antibiotics; however, some strains are resistant to antibiotics and, consequently, more difficult to treat. Staph is also highly contagious and can be spread through hand-to-hand contact, airborne transmission, or contact with an object. Although most staph infections occur on the skin, they can also occur in the nasal and sinus passages, mouth, anus, and genital areas. If you have a fresh wound that comes in contact with an infected person or object, a staph infection can easily erupt and will often present itself as a boil or abscess (Box 1).
Are you at risk for a staph infection?
If you suffer from influenza, diabetes mellitus, and pulmonary (lung) disorders, or your immune system is compromised in any way, you are more likely to contract staph infections of the skin. Additionally, if you become a hospital patient or are an athlete, you may be more frequently exposed to staph inside a healthcare or athletic facility.
Staph infections are commonly found in hospitals and healthcare clinics
where they can constitute a major problem. For example, if proper sterilization techniques are not used, staph can easily spread throughout a hospital or healthcare facility. Additionally, humans tend to harbor staph bacteria in the mucous membranes of the nose and sinuses. As a way to prevent infection, some hospitals and healthcare clinics take nose swabs before surgery. If the swab comes back positive for staph, you will be treated with antibiotics before your doctor proceeds with surgery. Other hospitals have patients cleanse their entire skin surface with a chlorhexidine wipe and put Betadine gel in their nose the morning of surgery.
Likewise, athletic facilities, such as health clubs and gyms, including weight rooms, wrestling rooms, and locker rooms, are all places where staph bacteria can grow and you can easily pick up an infection. Staph bacteria can be hard to destroy and can live on unclean equipment and facility surfaces long enough to be transferred to anyone who touches them. If you have an open wound on your body, this makes it easy to contract a staph infection. Likewise, if you have a cut that is not covered or treated properly and it becomes infected, the bacteria could easily spread to other people or to objects. As an athlete, frequent close contact with other athletes and poor locker room hygiene, such as the use of unwashed towels and uniforms, can make you susceptible to contracting staph infections (Box 2).
Recognizing staph infections of the skin
In the initial stages, a staph infection often manifests as a small lesion that may look much like a pimple or mosquito bite. As the lesion enlarges, it becomes painful and inflamed. It may also contain pus. If the infection continues to spread, you may experience a mild fever. Skin infections caused by staph include boils, impetigo, and cellulitis.
A common type of staph infection
A common and well-known form of staph is methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus (MRSA). This is a specific strain of the bacterium that is resistant to many of the antibiotics used to treat staph infections. Once a staph infection is classified as MRSA, it is considered much more dangerous because without effective antibiotic treatment it can quickly worsen. The Centers for Disease Control states that approximately 100,000 people contract and receive treatment for MRSA each year.
Treating staph infections
If you are worried that you may have contracted a staph infection of the skin, it is important to see your doctor promptly. The sooner the wound can be tested for bacteria the better. If not treated properly, a staph infection can spread quickly within the body and be transmitted to others.
The first route of treatment of the infection is usually antibiotics. You should receive a course of antibiotics as well as instructions on how to cover the wound with antibiotic ointment and a bandage. Your staph infection may return if it is not fully treated the first time or if it becomes antibiotic resistant. If the staph infection does return, your doctor may prescribe a second course of antibiotics. If the infection still does not clear up, you may need to be hospitalized for treatment with a more aggressive antibiotic regimen. At worst, you may need surgery to remove the infected tissue completely.
Keeping staph in check
Staph is a highly contagious infection that is spread primarily through hand-to-hand contact or through the air and can occur when you have a fresh wound that comes in contact with an infected object. If you start experiencing redness, swelling, and heat around a wound, you should see a physician right away and be tested for staph and put on a course of antibiotics, if appropriate. You should also receive instructions on how to keep a wound clean and covered. If you are an athlete, it is especially important to practice good hygiene and to keep all sporting equipment, clothing, and workout areas clean. To avoid a potentially dangerous situation and to shield those around you, it is crucial to act upon what may be a staph infection at the first signs of symptoms.
Authors: Marissa Turturro, ATC, and Amanda Guethlein, ATC | Columbus, Georgia
Reprinted with permission from the Hughston Health Alert, Volume 28, Number 2, Spring 2016.