MRSA Infections: Symptoms, Risks, and Treatment

Just three decades ago, few people had heard of methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus (MRSA), a type of bacteria that’s resistant to many antibiotics.

But today, the acronym MRSA can strike fear in anyone who has seen news reports about this potentially life-threatening infection.

While it’s true that some MRSA infections can be serious, you can take steps to keep yourself safe.

What Is MRSA?

Staphylococcus aureus is a common type of staph bacteria. In fact, it’s on the skin and in the nose in nearly one-third of the general population.

Staph bacteria can be harmless unless they enter the body, often through:

  • Scrapes
  • Cuts
  • Other small wounds

Once inside your skin, staph can cause minor infections in healthy people.

About 2 percent of Americans chronically carry MRSA. This type of staph bacteria is the result of antibiotic overuse.

When antibiotic drugs are over prescribed, bacteria have the chance to evolve to resist them. Infections that were once simple to treat can now survive and become much more serious — even deadly, in some cases.

“It’s important to take antibiotics only when necessary. Often your doctor won’t recommend antibiotics, especially for things like viral respiratory infections,” said Rebecca Simcik, DO, Greater Pittsburgh Medical Associates-UPMC.

Reducing antibiotic use and regular handwashing are two key ways to help prevent MRSA infections,” Dr. Simcik said.

MRSA Risk Factors and Symptoms

MRSA can spread from person to person, either through skin-to-skin contact or by sharing personal items, such as towels or razors.

Infections with these bacteria are more common in areas where people share close quarters, such as:

  • Hospitals
  • Schools
  • Locker rooms
  • Military housing

MRSA symptoms

As with other staph infections, MRSA infections can cause symptoms such as:

  • Redness
  • Swelling
  • Pain
  • Pus
  • Skin that feels hot to touch

Some people with MRSA infections mistake them for spider bites.

But, you should always call your doctor if you have these symptoms. He or she will need to run tests. Doctors can’t diagnose MRSA infections just by looking at them.

Left untreated, MRSA infections can quickly turn into deep abscesses or cause severe, possibly fatal infections of the blood, bone, and organs.

With MRSA, Early Care Is Key

Your doctor can diagnose you with MRSA by testing a tissue or nasal secretion sample.

If you have MRSA, your doctor may try to drain the abscess to stop the infection. He or she may also prescribe specialized antibiotics.

Ways to prevent the spread of MRSA

You can take steps to control MRSA and prevent it from spreading:

  • Keep the wound clean and covered until it has healed.
  • Don’t try to pop, pick, or drain the sore on your own. You could spread the infection to other parts of your body.
  • Wash your hands thoroughly and often.
  • Don’t share personal items, such as towels, razors, and clothing.
  • Wash sheets, towels, and clothes with laundry detergent and dry them in a clothes dryer.