Staph Infection (Non-MRSA)

Staph infections are caused by bacteria (Staphylococcus aureus). These bacteria are common germs that can cause many 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 germs on their nose and skin. Typically, they don't 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's now 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's 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 infections. 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 tested. 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. This may be taken as a pill. Or it may be put on the skin as an ointment. For an even more severe infection, your provider may prescribe a more powerful antibiotic given by IV (intravenously). If you have an 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 clean, running water for at least 20 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 clean, running water 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 20 seconds. Don’t just wipe. Scrub well.

  • Rinse your hands well under clean, running water.

  • 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 a hand sanitizer that contains at least 60% alcohol.

  • 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. This takes about 20 seconds.

Taking antibiotics correctly

You may have heard of MRSA (methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus). This is a type of staph bacteria that's 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 spread by other people. Or they can develop when antibiotics aren't prescribed or aren't taken correctly. This includes when antibiotics 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 they're sure you need them. It’s also why you must take antibiotics exactly as your 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.
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