Staphylococcus aureus, or S. aureus, is a gram positive bacteria than can be found naturally on our skin. An estimated 20% of the population serves as longer-term carriers for the bacterial colony, and 80% of us have the bacteria on our skin at any given time. Under a microscope, the bacterial colonies look like miniature clusters of golden grapes. These bacteria are responsible for many of the pimples and skin infections that we experience throughout life, but also for a few more serious illnesses.
S. aureus has been linked to pneumonia, meningitis, toxic shock syndrome, and is the most common source of staph infections. Discovered back in 1880 in Scotland thanks to an observant surgeon who identified the bacteria as a major cause of post-surgery infection, we now know a lot more about staphylococcus aureus. Contracting the bacteria in a hospital setting is quite easy, and more than 500,000 hospital patients in the US are treated for a staph infection each year.
What is a staph infection?
Staph is a very resilient bacterial skin infection. Styes and boils are usually due to S. aureus bacteria that has become trapped in the skin. While the bacteria are harmless on our skin, they can enter surface wounds and spread to other areas of the body. If left untreated, the infection can spread, weakening the victim’s immune system, leaving them susceptible to other infections. Most of the time, staph infections are not serious; however, in the most extreme cases, a staph infection can culminate in pneumonia or meningitis, which can be fatal.
Are staph infections contagious?
Staph infections are highly contagious. The pus from an infected individual can transfer the bacteria through skin-to-skin contact, or via transfer on a towel, item of clothing, or athletic mats or equipment. Wrestling mats are notorious for the spread of staph infections due to the amount of sweat on them and direct skin contact from athletes. The more deeply into the skin that a staph infection penetrates, the more severe the symptoms and illness.
While human-to-human contact is the most common source of the spread of staph infections, the bacteria can also be spread through pets. The best way to prevent transfer is to be diligent about hand washing, and to use disposable gloves and gowns around patients. The strain of bacteria is incredibly hardy and can survive in dry environments for months before finding a new host. This is probably the reason for the rampant spread of the S. aureus bacteria in hospital and medical settings.
What is the standard treatment?
Staph infections can be treated with a regimen of penicillin, or other antibiotic. More serious infections may require additional therapy with gentamicin, and the dose and duration of antibiotics depends heavily on the infection site and infection severity. Note that patients on these antibiotics are at an increased risk of kidney damage, so kidney function is closely monitored. Over the decades, S. aureus has developed a resistance to penicillin, so alternative treatment methods are being investigated. A research group in Italy has discovered a bacteriophage that shows promise in its activity against S. aureus.
Your doctor may also prescribe a topical ointment to help reduce swelling and keep the infected skin as sterile as possible. If the cream contains steroids, discontinue use immediately when the infection has cleared.
Do patients recover fully?
Staph infections can clear up in as little as ten days if treated properly. You should soak the infected skin in warm water to help relieve the pain and welling from any pus buildup. Launder your washcloths, towels, and clothes very carefully to ensure that the bacteria don’t hang around any longer than necessary. You should avoid shaving the infected skin, or use a new disposable razor each time if it can’t be avoided.