Learn about the symptoms, causes and treatment of these potentially lethal infections.
Staph infections are caused by staphylococcus bacteria. These types of germs are commonly found on the skin or in the nose of many healthy people. Most of the time, these bacteria cause no problems or cause relatively minor skin infections.
But staph infections can turn deadly if the bacteria invade deeper into your body, entering your bloodstream, joints, bones, lungs or heart. A growing number of otherwise healthy people are developing life-threatening staph infections.
Treatment usually involves antibiotics and cleaning of the infected area. However, some staph infections no longer respond, or become resistant, to common antibiotics. To treat antibiotic-resistant staph infections, health care providers may need to use antibiotics that can cause more side effects.
Staph infections can range from minor skin problems to life-threatening illness. For example, endocarditis, a serious infection of the inner lining of your heart (endocardium) can be caused by staph bacteria. Signs and symptoms of staph infections vary widely, depending on the location and severity of the infection.
Skin infections caused by staph bacteria include:
Boils. The most common type of staph infection is the boil. This is a pocket of pus that develops in a hair follicle or oil gland. The skin over the infected area usually becomes red and swollen.
If a boil breaks open, it will probably drain pus. Boils occur most often under the arms or around the groin or buttocks.
Staph bacteria are one of the most common causes of food poisoning. The bacteria multiply in food and produce toxins that make you sick. Symptoms come on quickly, usually within hours of eating a contaminated food. Symptoms usually disappear quickly, too, often lasting just half a day.
A staph infection in food usually doesn't cause a fever. Signs and symptoms you can expect with this type of staph infection include:
Also known as a bloodstream infection, bacteremia occurs when staph bacteria enter the bloodstream. A fever and low blood pressure are signs of bacteremia. The bacteria can travel to locations deep within your body to cause infections that affect:
This life-threatening condition results from toxins produced by some strains of staph bacteria. The condition has been linked to certain types of tampons, skin wounds and surgery. It usually develops suddenly with:
Septic arthritis is often caused by a staph infection. The bacteria often target the knees, shoulders, hips, and fingers or toes. Artificial joints may also be at risk of infection. Signs and symptoms may include:
Go to your health care provider if you or your child has:
You may also want to talk to your provider if:
Many people carry staph bacteria on their skin or in their nose and never develop staph infections. However, if you develop a staph infection, there's a good chance that it's from bacteria you've been carrying around for some time.
Staph bacteria can also be spread from person to person. Because staph bacteria are so hardy, they can live on objects such as pillowcases or towels long enough to transfer to the next person who touches them.
Staph bacteria can make you sick by causing an infection. You can also become sick from the toxins produced by the bacteria.
Staph bacteria can survive:
Many factors — including the health of your immune system or the types of sports you play — can increase your risk of developing staph infections.
Certain disorders or the medications used to treat them can make you more likely to get staph infections. People who may be more likely to get a staph infection include those with:
Despite strong attempts to get rid of them, staph bacteria stay present in hospitals, where they can infect people who are most at risk of infection. This can include people with:
Sometimes people admitted to the hospital may be screened to see if they're carrying staph bacteria. Screening is done using a nasal swab. Treatment to get rid of the bacteria may be given to help prevent infection and decrease the spread to others.
Staph bacteria can get into the body by traveling along medical tubing. These devices make a connection between the outside and the inside of your body. Examples are:
Also, staph bacteria are attracted to implanted devices, where they grow on the surface and cause infection. These include surgically implanted devices such as:
Staph bacteria can spread easily through cuts, scrapes and skin-to-skin contact. Staph infections may also spread in the locker room through shared razors, towels, uniforms or equipment.
Food handlers who don't properly wash their hands can transfer staph bacteria from their skin to the food they're preparing. The bacteria multiply in the food and produce toxins that make you sick. Cooking can kill the bacteria. But the toxins are still in the food. Foods that are contaminated with staph bacteria do not look or taste differently.
If staph bacteria invade your bloodstream, you may develop a type of infection that affects your entire body. Called sepsis, this infection can lead to septic shock. This is a life-threatening episode when your blood pressure drops to an extremely low level.
Staph infections can also turn deadly if the bacteria invade deep into your body, entering your bloodstream, joints, bones, lungs or heart.
These commonsense precautions can help lower your risk of getting staph infections:
Wash your hands. Thorough hand washing is your best defense against germs. Wash your hands with soap and water briskly for at least 20 seconds. Then dry them with a disposable towel and use the towel to turn off the faucet. If your hands aren't visibly dirty or you aren't able to wash your hands, you can use an alcohol-based hand sanitizer.
Wash your hands with soap and water regularly, such as before, during and after making food; after handling raw meat or poultry; before eating; after using the bathroom; and after touching an animal or animal waste.
To diagnose a staph infection, your health care provider typically will:
Treatment of a staph infection may include:
Antibiotics. Your health care provider may perform tests to identify the staph bacteria behind your infection. This can help your provider choose the antibiotic that will work best for you. Antibiotics commonly prescribed to treat staph infections include cefazolin, nafcillin, oxacillin, vancomycin, daptomycin and linezolid.
For serious staph infections, vancomycin may be required. This is because so many strains of staph bacteria have become resistant to other traditional antibiotics. This means other antibiotics can no longer kill the staph bacteria. Vancomycin and some other antibiotics used for antibiotic-resistant staph infections have to be given through a vein (intravenously).
If you're given an oral antibiotic, be sure to take it as directed. Finish all the medication your provider gives you. Ask your provider what signs and symptoms you should watch for that might mean your infection is getting worse.
Staph bacteria are very adaptable. Many varieties have become resistant to one or more antibiotics. For example, today, most staph infections can't be cured with penicillin.
Antibiotic-resistant strains of staph bacteria are often described as methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus (MRSA) strains. The increase in antibiotic-resistant strains has led to the use of IV antibiotics, such as vancomycin or daptomycin, with the potential for more side effects.
While you may first see your family health care provider, you may be referred to a specialist, depending on which of your organ systems is affected by the infection. For example, you may be referred to a specialist in treating skin conditions (dermatologist), heart disorders (cardiologist) or infectious diseases.
Before your appointment, you may want to make a list that includes:
For a staph infection, some basic questions to ask include:
Your health care provider will likely ask you a number of questions, such as:
If you suspect that you have a staph infection on your skin, keep the area clean and covered until you see your health care provider so that you don't spread the bacteria. And until you know whether or not you have a staph infection, don't share towels, clothing and bedding and don't prepare food for others.