MRSA stands for methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus–a strain of “staph” that’s resistant to the antibiotic medications typically used to treat it. Once confined mostly to hospitals and nursing homes, MRSA has recently become a threat in the community, particularly among certain groups.
Staph are hardy and prolific bacteria that inhabit the nostrils and skin of about a third of Americans, usually causing no harm. Staph infections generally occur in hospitals, nursing homes or dialysis clinics where sick persons with compromised immune systems come in close proximity. With more than half of patients using some kind of antibiotic medication, the health care environment is also ideal for the emergence of MRSA, a strain of staph that is resistant to the effects not only of methicillin but most other major classes of antibiotics. First appearing in the early 1960s, MRSA now accounts for as many as half of staph infections occurring in health care settings.
The earliest cases of MRSA acquired in the community were reported among a high school wrestling team in 1993. Athletes are vulnerable because they often 1) acquire cuts and scrapes, 2) have frequent skin-to-skin contact and 3) share equipment, clothing and surfaces such as weight benches, exercise mats and training tables.
Other vulnerable groups include children attending day care centers or camps, students in dormitories, prison inmates, military personnel and gay males in certain cities.
Whereas persons age 60 and over are more likely to be infected with hospital-acquired MRSA, the average age at diagnosis for community-acquired MRSA, according to one study, was 23. Children are more vulnerable to serious complications, including pneumonia, because their immune systems are still developing and they do not yet have antibodies for common germs.
In 75 percent of cases, MRSA presents as a soft tissue or skin infection. What seems to be a pimple or insect bite develops into a boil or abscess, with a defined area of redness, warmth, swelling and sometimes pus and drainage.
When given prompt attention, MRSA infections can usually be treated by cleaning and drainage of pus, with or without antibiotics such as vancomycin. The infection should be monitored carefully, especially if it’s on the knee or hand where an infection can quickly spread into bones and joints.
And steps should be taken to prevent the spread of MRSA. In the hospital, patients with MRSA infections may be isolated. In the community, this is difficult and usually not necessary. A child with MRSA should not be sent home from school, for example, except on the recommendation of a physician.
The best way to protect yourself and others from the spread of MRSA is through good hygiene:
Wash your hands frequently with soap and warm water, scrubbing them briskly for at least 15 seconds.
Shower with soap immediately after a game or practice and don’t share a towel.
Treat cuts and scrapes promptly and keep the wound covered with a sterile, dry bandage until it has healed. Be sure to dispose of used bandages properly so that others do not become infected.
Don’t share personal items such as towels, caps, helmets, sheets, razors, clothing or athletic equipment.
One important thing you can do is to respect the power of antibiotics and use them appropriately. Don’t ask your doctor for antibiotics to fight a cold or the flu; these are viral infections that do not respond to antibiotics. And when you’re prescribed an antibiotic, take the whole course, as your doctor instructs, even if the infection is getting better.
There’s no question that MRSA is a major danger that accounts for about 90,000 invasive infections and 19,000 deaths each year in the United States. On the other hand, most MRSA infections can be treated, even without antibiotics, in some cases, if they are detected early enough.
One important tool in stopping the spread of MRSA is information–what it is, how it is transmitted, how it can be prevented. If you didn’t know about MRSA before reading this article, you do now. Pass it along.
Fred McTaggart, PH.D.
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