Health Talk : Staph Infection

Like yelling “Fire!” in a crowded building, misunderstanding the term “staph infection” can cause mass confusion and undue hysteria. The umbrella term, Staphylococcus in full, refers to a wide range of conditions and can lead to a number of diseases that vary in their severity. Some require no treatment, while others can be fatal if left untreated.

Staphylococcus comes from the Greek staphyle, meaning “bunch of grapes,” and coccos, meaning “granule.” Under a microscope, the bacteria appear round in shape and form grape-like clusters.

Though staph infection is caused by the bacteria in the Staphylococcus group, about 25 percent of healthy people carry the bacteria in the nose, mouth, and other areas without showing symptoms.

There are over 30 different types of Staphylococcus bacteria that can infect humans. The most common is Staphylococcus aureus, which seeps into the body through wounds on the skin.

A staph infection is often transmitted through cuts or other open wounds, which can allow disease-causing bacteria to enter the body.

Staph infections are fairly common among the general population. The severity of the infection depends on how deep (in which layer of skin) the infection lies and how quickly it spreads.

Staphylococcus food poisoning is caused by eating foods contaminated by toxins caused by Staphylococcus aureus bacteria. Symptoms of food poisoning include nausea, vomiting, diarrhea, and dehydration. Symptoms develop within six hours of eating contaminated food and usually subside within three days.

External signs of skin infections caused by Staphylococcus aureus include swelling, redness, and tenderness in the affected area, and sometimes open sores. Later on, the infection may spread, causing fever, chills, sweating, and increased swelling.

Minor staph infections can be diagnosed by their appearance without undergoing any laboratory tests. More severe forms of staph infections, such as pneumonia, endocarditis, and infections of the bloodstream, require cultures of fluid samples and other tests for diagnosis.

If the infection goes deep enough, it may spread to muscles, which requires surgery. If Staphylococcus bacteria enter the bloodstream and spread to other organs, there could be serious repercussions. Bacteria can cause infection of the heart valves (endocarditis), which can lead to heart failure.

Spread of Staphylococcus to the bones can cause bone inflammation (osteomyelitis). If the bacteria infect the bloodstream, a condition called Staphylococcal sepsis can cause shock, circulatory collapse, and even death.

Staphylococcus aureus bacteria can also cause toxic shock syndrome, which occurs predominantly in women who use tampons. The illness is caused when the bacteria grow in an area in which there is little or no oxygen. Symptoms include sudden onset of high fever, vomiting, diarrhea, and muscle aches, followed by low blood pressure, which can be fatal.

Certain groups are more susceptible or will have a more severe reaction to staph infections. Breastfeeding women can get mastitis (inflammation of the breast) from staph bacteria as well as abscess of the breast, which releases bacteria into the mother’s milk. The latter condition puts newborn infants at an elevated risk of staph infections.

People with lung disease run the risk of acquiring Staphylococcus pneumonia, which can cause abscesses to develop in the lungs.
Other groups that are particularly susceptible to staph infections include injecting drug users and those with weakened immune systems, diabetes, cancer, lung disease, vascular disease, intravenous catheters, surgical incisions, or skin injuries or disorders.

Minor skin infections are treated with over-the-counter medication, while more serious infections are treated with intravenous antibiotics. Penicillin was once used to treat staph infections, but about 50 percent of current staph cases are resistant to this drug, due to the regular use of antibiotics in the past several decades. Now, doctors prescribe stronger antibiotics to cure staph infections.

The specific antibiotic prescribed depends on the type of infection present. One strain of Staphylococcus bacteria, Methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus, is resistant to antibiotic treatment.

The best way to prevent a staph infection is to keep skin dry. If you do get a cut or injury that results in an open wound, clean the area with soap and water. Once the cut is clean, apply antiseptic ointment to keep bacteria from collecting in the affected area. If the area becomes increasingly painful or red, schedule an appointment with a doctor.

It should be noted that staph infections are contagious when infected wounds are left weeping or uncovered. To protect yourself from catching a staph infection, avoid sharing towels or other personal items, and keep your feet covered in locker rooms, pool decks, and other areas where people tend to go barefoot.

So, while it’s nice to offer a towel to a jittery friend at the pool or frolic shoe-free in the locker room, be careful with whom you share and who shares with you — you may also be sharing with some uninvited Staphylococcus bacteria.