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Staph Infections


What Is a Staph Infection?

Staph is the shortened name for Staphylococcus (pronounced: staf-uh-low-KAH-kus), a type of bacteria. These bacteria can live harmlessly on many skin surfaces, especially around the nose, mouth, genitals, and anus. But when the skin is punctured or broken, staph bacteria can enter the wound and cause an infection.

The staph family of bacteria has more than 30 species. They can cause different kinds of illnesses. For example, one kind of staph causes urinary tract infections. But most staph infections are caused by the species Staphylococcus aureus (S. aureus).

 

S. aureus usually causes skin infections that are limited to a small area of a person's skin, like folliculitis, boils, impetigo, and cellulitis. S. aureus can also release toxins (poisons) that may lead to illnesses like food poisoning or toxic shock syndrome.

What Causes Staph Infections?

People can get staph infections from contaminated objects, but staph bacteria often spread through skin-to-skin contact — the bacteria can be spread from one area of the body to another if someone touches the infected area.

Staph infections can spread from person to person in group living situations (like college dorms). Usually this happens when people with skin infections share personal things like bed linens, towels, or clothing.

Warm, humid environments can contribute to staph infections, so excessive sweating can increase someone's chances of developing an infection. People with skin problems like burns or eczema may be more likely to get staph skin infections.

Serious Staph Infections

In teens, most staph infections are minor skin infections. But infections caused by S. aureus can occasionally become serious. This happens when the bacteria move from a break in the skin into the bloodstream. This can lead to infections in other parts of the body, such as the lungs, bones, joints, heart, blood, and central nervous system.

Staph infections in other parts of the body are more likely in people whose immune systems have been weakened by another disease — or by certain medications, like chemotherapy for cancer.

Sometimes, patients having surgery may get more serious types of staph infections. Hospital staff take many steps to avoid infection in someone having surgery. That's why they carefully clean the area being operated on, use sterile equipment, and sometimes give a person antibiotics.

You may also have heard about methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus or MRSA for short. MRSA is a type of staph that has built up a resistance to the antibiotics usually used to treat staph infections. Although MRSA can be harder to treat, in most cases the infection heals with the right treatment.

What Are the Signs and Symptoms of a Staph Skin Infection?

Staph skin infections show up in lots of different ways. Some of the more common conditions often caused by S. aureus skin infections are:

Wound infections generally show up 2 or more days after the injury or surgery. The signs of a wound infection (redness, pain, swelling, and warmth) are similar to those found in cellulitis. A person might have fever and feel sick in general. Pus or a cloudy fluid can drain from the wound and a yellow crust (like that in impetigo) can develop.

How Are Staph Infections Treated?

Many staph infections are minor and can be treated at home. If a minor infection gets worse — for example, you start feeling feverish or ill, or the area spreads and gets very red and hot — it's a good idea to see a doctor. 

Always clean and cover areas of injured skin (such as cuts, scrapes, eczema, and rashes caused by allergic reactions or poison ivy). Use antibiotic ointments or any other treatments that your doctor suggests.

If you get a staph infection, here's how to stop it from spreading to other parts of your body:

If you get a staph infection on skin areas that you normally shave, avoid shaving until the infection clears up. If you do have to shave the area, use a clean disposable razor or clean your electric razor after each use.

A stye can be treated using warm compresses over the eye (with the eye closed) three or four times a day. Always use a clean washcloth each time. Occasionally, a stye will require a topical antibiotic. See your doctor if a stye doesn't go away in a few days.

If you think you have a wound infection after surgery, or you have a serious wound that seems to be infected, call your doctor.

How Long Does a Staph Infection Last?

How long it takes for a staph skin infection to heal depends on the type of infection and whether a person gets treatment for it. A boil, for example, may take 10 to 20 days to heal without treatment, but treatment may speed up the healing process. Most styes, on the other hand, go away on their own within several days.

Can I Prevent a Staph Skin Infection?

Staphylococcus aureus bacteria are everywhere. Many healthy people carry staph bacteria without getting sick.

Cleanliness is the best way to protect yourself against getting staph (and other) infections — including MRSA. You can help prevent staph skin infections by washing your hands often and by bathing or showering daily. If you get a staph infection on skin areas that you normally shave, avoid shaving until the infection clears up. If you do have to shave the area, use a clean disposable razor or clean your electric razor after each use.

If someone in your family has a staph infection, don't share towels, sheets, or clothing until the infection has been fully treated. Call your doctor if skin infections seem to be passing from one family member to another, or if two or more family members have skin infections at the same time.

What Can I Do to Feel Better?

To help relieve pain from a skin infection, and to help pus drain out, try soaking the affected area in warm water or applying warm, moist washcloths. Use a clean washcloth each time — wash used cloths in soap and hot water and dry them fully in a clothes dryer. You can also apply a heating pad or a hot water bottle to the skin for about 20 minutes, three or four times a day.

Pain relievers like acetaminophen or ibuprofen can help reduce pain until the infection goes away. For some skin infections, it can also help to wash the area with an antibacterial cleanser and apply an antibiotic ointment. Cover the skin with a clean dressing.

Date reviewed: June 2014


Note: All information on TeensHealth® is for educational purposes only. For specific medical advice, diagnoses, and treatment, consult your doctor.

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