We hear about MRSA (mer-sa) all the time in the news, but what is it exactly? How does someone get it? What can we do to prevent it? MRSA is the abbreviation for “methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus”. It is a variant of “staph” that is resistant to some antibiotics. Staph can be found commonly in the nostrils and on the skin of healthy individuals. However, when it invades a cut or wound it can grow unchecked and infection results.
Methicillin is in a class of antibiotics known as “beta lactams”. Other members of this class are penicillin, oxacillin and amoxicillin. Beta lactam refers to part of the chemical structure which allows these drugs to kill bacteria by interfering with cell wall synthesis during replication. Therefore, treating MRSA can be challenging as other antibiotics must be used.
The first reports of MRSA emerged in the 1960’s. Interestingly, at that time, MRSA was almost always an infection found exclusively in the hospital setting. It wasn’t until the 1990’s that it began to be seen in the outpatient “community” setting. The numbers of these “community acquired (CA-MRSA)” infections have skyrocketed since, and now, hospitals are finding more and more of these strains of bacterium infecting patients than ever before.
The route of infection with MRSA is usually skin on skin contact with an infected person or skin contact with contaminated surfaces. Exposure to MRSA can happen anywhere, but the most common settings are daycares, schools, gyms or athletic areas, dormitories, military barracks, nursing homes and correctional facilities. Infections tend to happen more frequently in these environments due to the close contact of individuals in these settings. Clusters of infections have been documented in these types of settings.
MRSA can appear as a pimple, boil or abscess, sometimes with draining fluid or pus. The surrounding area may be red, swollen, warm or tender to the touch. However, it may also present as a flat but tender erosion (loss of the top layer of skin) which may also be wet or weeping, or as folliculitis (inflamed hair follicles) on hair bearing areas of the body. Appearance alone cannot distinguish MRSA. A swab culture of the lesion/drainage should be done at your health care provider’s office. This will be sent to the lab where they will grow and identify the bacteria. They can also provide a list of antibiotics that can treat and eradicate the infection.
As with any infection, the best treatment is prevention. MRSA is highly preventable. Follow these simple steps to prevent MRSA infection:
- Regularly wash your hands with soap and water or use an alcohol based sanitizer
- Cover breaks in the skin with clean bandages until fully healed
- Avoid picking or squeezing the skin around a pimple, cut or scrape
- Avoid sharing personal items that touch the skin such as razors or towels
- Regularly clean frequently touched surfaces both at home, work and the gym
There are industrial strength cleaners that are made to disinfect surfaces and kill MRSA, but simple things such as ¼ cup of bleach in a gallon of water can be used as well.
If you think you or your child has developed a skin infection, make sure to make an appointment to see your healthcare provider promptly. These infections are easily treated when caught early, treated with the appropriate antibiotic, and proper care instructions are followed. If you chronically have boils or infection, let your healthcare provider know as it may affect your treatment regimen. Lastly, if prescribed oral antibiotics, make sure to complete the entire course even if you start seeing improvement quickly. Partially treated infections can result in further resistance to antibiotics in the future.