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Sonoma Family Life Magazine

The Truth About Staph Infections Part I

Oct 30, 2007 12:00AM

The Truth About Staph Infections

Part I

If those graphic medical shows make you squeamish, thank your lucky stars you haven’t had to deal with the dangerous new staph infections. You may be familiar with some common staph infections like impetigo or folliculitis, but they’re nothing like the painful, pus-oozing wounds that more and more kids and teens are contracting.

What is Staph?

Staph bacteria, Staphylococcus aureus, is very common, and found on the skin and in the nose of about one-third of the population. Staph enters the body through an open cut, abrasion, bite, or some break in the skin and causes an abscess. In some rare cases it can spread throughout the body, including the bones and in the lungs (pneumonia).

Methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus (MRSA) is a strain of staph that is resistant to the broad-spectrum antibiotics commonly used to treat it. And that’s what makes this strain so dangerous. According to the U.S. Center for Disease Control, a new type of MRSA known as ‘community-acquired’ MRSA began showing up in the wider community in the 1990s. Today, the MRSA form of staph is responsible for more serious infections and pneumonia than the regular strains.

Dr. Dorothy Coleman-Riese, a pediatrician at Santa Rosa Pediatrics, notes that their office sees an abscess a week, a level that was unheard of a year ago. “Emergency rooms probably see MRSA daily. At this point, when they see an abscess, they just assume that it’s MRSA—it’s that common. It’s an epidemic, and we’re going to see more of it.”

Indeed, the incidence of MRSA staph infections has been increasing in Europe and the UK, and are considered to be near epidemic proportions at European hospitals. Closer to home, the neonatal and intensive care pediatric units at White Memorial Center Hospital in Los Angeles were closed due to an outbreak in December. One baby died, and six others were infected.

HA-MRSA, or ‘hospital acquired’ MRSA, is contracted during a hospital stay. In contrast, community-acquired MRSA occurs in otherwise healthy people who have no history of hospitalization in the last year.

MRSA is highly contagious, its symptoms are more severe, and appear more rapidly than the regular staph infections. It can make your child/teen very sick, can even be fatal, and may be misdiagnosed by some medical professionals.

Imagine a painful red spot on your child's arm that looks like a spider bite, but it gets worse after a few days. You go to the doctor’s office and they lance it to drain the pus, and prescribe antibiotics. But it’s not like a pimple or pus pocket, where you can poke it once, wipe it away, put a band aid on it and off you go. Imagine a hole (or holes) the size of a walnut, or larger, that is more like a sponge with lots of little pockets of pus. That’s a lot of lancing. It could be just about anywhere. Inside a nose (very dangerous because it’s close to the brain) on an arm, leg, back, buttocks, stomach, or toes.

After lancing, they pack it with a thick gauze rope, (i.e. push this into the wound.) The packing acts as a wick to soak up the pus. Then every day or so you have to pull some of this packing out this wound, a little at a time since they want the hole to heal from the inside out. This is one of those rarely talked about, totally gross experiences that will stay with you.

The MRSA bacteria is highly contagious yet you can be a carrier of the bacteria and not even know it! It could be on your skin and in your nose right now. Now to be fair, you have billions of bacteria on your skin. (Really, billions.) In fact in just one square centimeter, you may well have approximately 500,000 of those little critters, and still be the picture of cleanliness and health.

How is Staph Spread?

Staph bacteria can be spread through skin-to-skin contact, and surfaces. Basic hygiene is the best way to prevent the spread of staph bacteria.

“Wash your hands,” says Dr. Coleman-Riese. In addition, whenever there is a break in the skin—such as a cut or rash—make sure to wash it really well with soap and water, and keep it covered.

“Teach your kids, ‘Make sure you have your own towel and don’t put your gym clothes down on the bench, put them in your locker’—very common sense kind of stuff that kids may not necessarily think of,” suggests Lisa Valdez, the infectious disease nurse at Sutter Hospital in Lakeside.

“The best way to prevent the locker room infections or contact infections (common with contact sports) is teaching your kids good hand washing techniques, making sure they shower daily, and after sports practice,” says Valdez. 

Staph can also be contracted in hospitals and medical offices. One North Bay hospital recently tested door handles, and found that 80% had the MRSA bacteria. While most hospitals and offices are ultra-careful, mistakes can happen. Watch for people who attend to your child that forget to wash hands, use gloves, or follow hygienic procedures, even in hospitals. Better to ask about proper procedures now than suffer later.

Read Part II here.