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Staph Infection (Non-MRSA)

Staphylococcus aureus bacteria are often called “staph.” They are common germs that can cause a variety of problems. These range from mild skin infections to severe infections of your skin, deep tissues, lungs, bones, and blood. Most healthy adults normally carry staph on their nose and skin. Typically, they do not cause disease. But if your skin is broken or opened, staph can enter your body and cause infection. Staph infections often get better on their own or are easily treated with antibiotics. But it is becoming more common to see bacteria that are resistant to antibiotics, or hard to kill with them. This sheet tells you more about staph infections and what you can do to prevent them.

How does staph spread?

Closeup of lower face and neck. Staph infection sores on nose and near mouth.
Because staph is carried in the nose, skin infections often occur near the nose or mouth or both.

Staph spreads through skin-to-skin contact with an infected person. It also spreads through contact with contaminated objects, such as shared towels, household items, or athletic equipment.

Who is at risk for a staph infection?

Anyone can get a staph infection. Certain risk factors make it more likely, including:

  • Living or having close contact with someone who has staph

  • Having an open wound or sore

  • Playing contact sports or sharing towels or athletic equipment

  • A current or recent stay in a hospital or long-term care facility

  • A recent surgery or wound treatment

  • Having a feeding tube or catheter in your body

  • Receiving kidney dialysis

  • Having a weak immune system or serious illness

  • Injecting illegal drugs

What conditions can be caused by a staph infection?

Staph infections usually start in your skin. They sometimes appear as small red bumps that look like pimples or spider bites. These sores can turn into abscesses. These are pus-filled areas of infection. Staph infections can also spread deeper into your body, causing 1 or more of these:

  • Infections in bones (osteomyelitis), muscles, and other tissues

  • Lung infection (pneumonia)

  • Infection in a wound from a surgery

  • Infection in the bloodstream (bacteremia)

  • Infection of the lining of your heart and your heart valves (endocarditis)

  • Illness caused by the toxins staph produces (toxic shock syndrome)

  • Staph skin infection causing blisters and raw skin (scalded skin syndrome)

How is a staph infection diagnosed?

Your healthcare provider can often diagnose staph infection based on how it looks. With a more serious infection, testing may be done. Often, a sample of blood or urine is taken. A sample of fluid leaking from a wound, mucus from the lungs (sputum), or infected tissue can also be used. The sample is sent to a lab and tested for staph.

How is a staph infection treated?

A minor skin infection is often treated with warm soaks and basic wound care, including a bandage. If the infection is more serious, an antibiotic may be prescribed, either as a pill or an ointment. For an even more severe infection your provider may prescribe a more powerful antibiotic given intravenously. If you have a pocket of pus (abscess), your provider may drain it.

How can I prevent staph infections?

To reduce the spread of staph infections, keep cuts and scrapes clean and covered until they heal. Avoid contact with the wounds or bandages of others. Don't share personal items such as towels, razors, clothing, or athletic equipment. Keep your hands clean. Your best option is washing your hands with soap and water for at least 15 to 30 seconds. If that’s not possible, or if your hands aren’t visibly dirty, use a hand gel that contains at least 60% alcohol. 

Tips for good handwashing:

  • Use water (either cold or warm is fine) and plenty of soap. Work up a good lather.

  • Clean your whole hand, under your nails, between your fingers, and up your wrists.

  • Wash for at least 15 to 30 seconds. Don’t just wipe. Scrub well.

  • Rinse, letting the water run down your fingers, not up your wrists.

  • Dry your hands well. Use a paper towel to turn off the faucet and open the door.

Tips for using alcohol-based hand gels:

  • Use enough gel to get your hands fully wet.

  • Rub your hands together briskly. Clean the backs of your hands, the palms, between your fingers, and up your wrists.

  • Rub until the gel is gone and your hands are fully dry.

Taking antibiotics correctly

You may have heard of MRSA (methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus). This is a type of staph bacteria that is hard to kill (resistant) with many antibiotics that used to be effective against it. This means the bacteria can't be treated with some antibiotics (such as methicillin) that work on other types of staph. But, other effective antibiotics are available.

Resistant bacteria can be picked up from others, or can develop when antibiotics are not prescribed or taken correctly. This includes when they are taken longer than needed, not taken long enough, or taken when they’re not needed. This is why your healthcare provider may not prescribe antibiotics unless he or she is certain they are needed. It’s also why you must take antibiotic medicine exactly as your healthcare provider tells you. This means not skipping doses, and taking the medicine until it’s finished, even if you’re feeling better.

© 2000-2021 The StayWell Company, LLC. All rights reserved. This information is not intended as a substitute for professional medical care. Always follow your healthcare professional's instructions.