Drug resistant staphylococcus aureus, often called "staph," infections have made news recently with outbreaks in several school districts across the country, including a case in Norwalk.
Staph isn't new and it isn't cause for fear. But staph infection can be serious and is cause for caution and preventive measures.
Staph is a common type of bacteria carried in the nose or on the skin of healthy people without making its "host" (meaning the unwilling person it's living in) sick. An estimated 25 to 30 percent of the population carries staph bacteria in their noses with no symptoms. Staph bacteria are one of the most common causes of skin infections, usually causing minor skin problems that resemble a pimple, spider bite or boil.
Staph bacteria are more harmful when they enter the body through a cut or wound. People most vulnerable to serious staph infections are usually the young, the old, the ill and those with weakened immune systems.
Other risk factors for staph infection include current or recent hospitalization, residence in a long-term care facility, use of invasive devices like dialysis, catheters or feeding tubes, recent use of antibiotics, participation in contact sports, sharing personal items or athletic equipment, living in crowded or unsanitary conditions, and close contact with a healthcare worker carrying staph infection.
Staph infections can be serious, causing potentially life-threatening infections in bones, joints, surgical wounds, the bloodstream, heart valves or lungs. Most staph infections are treatable with antibiotics, but there are types of staph that do not respond to antibiotics.
A type of staph bacteria emerged in hospitals decades ago that could not be killed with broad-spectrum antibiotics. This drug resistant type of staph is called Methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus, MRSA for short. MRSA started showing up outside of hospitals in the community in the 1990s.
Bacterial drug resistance comes from a combination of germ mutation and from human misuse and overuse of antibiotics. "Savvy" bacteria, those that survive a round of antibiotics, evolve and "learn" to resist future courses of antibiotics. Staph bacteria's "super-evolution" against antibiotics moves faster than research and development for new drugs.
Humans have added to the problem by overusing antibiotics to treat viruses that antibiotics won't kill, and for simple bacterial infections that would clear up on their own without the use of antibiotics. Another suspected contributor to bacterial drug resistance is the overuse of antibiotics in animals and the runoff from animal feedlots into our water supply.
What can you do to protect yourself and your family? Direct skin-to-skin contact is the most common method of transmission, so good hygiene is your best protection against all forms of staph. Wash your hands with soap and hot water, use alcohol-based hand sanitizer when you can't get to a sink, cover cuts or scrapes with a clean dry bandage, bath and shower regularly, and don't share towels, razors or other personal items. This protects you from the germs of others and protects others from your germs.
Second, be smart about antibiotic use. When your doctor tells you he or she suspects a viral infection, do not pressure him/her for an antibiotic. An antibiotic will not help, and overuse adds to the problem of drug resistance. When your doctor does prescribe an antibiotic, take every dose every day on time until it is gone. Missing doses can turn your body into a Petri dish for bacterial evolution. Don't use antibiotics prescribed for someone else.
Third, learn the symptoms. A staph-infected site may turn red, look like a pimple (with or without pus), look like a spider bite, look like a boil or have drainage. The skin around the bump may feel hot. Sometimes the surrounding skin turns black as the bacteria kill the skin cells. Red streaks in the surrounding area, joint pain or fever may mean that a serious infection has spread beyond the skin. If you experience these symptoms, call your doctor. Even though a healthy body can usually fight a staph infection on its own, MRSA can move from a skin infection to serious blood infection requiring hospitalization in a matter of days. It is best not to take a chance on a staph infection.
Finally, keep your environment clean. Wipe down frequently touched surfaces like doorknobs, countertops, faucets and light switches with a disinfectant. Keep toys at home, in day cares and in schools clean by wiping them down or washing them frequently. Wipe down athletic equipment before and after use. When using a disinfectant, spray down the surface, allow it to sit for two to three minutes, then wipe it down with a clean dry towel. These common sense measures should keep you safe from staph infection as well as from most other "bugs."
Angela Smith is director of Health Education and Preparedness, Huron County General Health District.