Recognizing and Preventing Staph Infections

Infections are insidious little buggers. Microscopic germs or bacteria – many already present in our bodies and long dormant – are triggered by immune system weaknesses, poor nutritional health, existing chronic diseases and many other factors, and then run rampant through our bodies. Fortunately, if identified and treated in time with the proper antibiotics, we can limit the damage and return to full health. But infectious diseases are major killers and shouldn’t be ignored or treated lightly.

Here’s a sobering reality:  Of more than 500 known infectious diseases, we lack cures for about 200 of them. One often misunderstood but extremely common type of infection is caused by staphylococcus bacteria, types of germs commonly found on the skin or in the nose of even healthy individuals. Most of the time, these bacteria cause no problems or result in relatively minor skin infections.

But staph infections can turn deadly if the bacteria invade deeper into our bodies, entering the bloodstream, joints, bones, lungs or heart. A growing number of otherwise healthy people are developing life-threatening staph infections at alarming rates. Treatment usually involves antibiotics and drainage of the infected area. However, some staph infections no longer respond to common antibiotics.

Symptoms 

Staph infections can range from minor skin problems to endocarditis, a life-threatening infection of the inner lining of the heart (endocardium). As a result, signs and symptoms of staph infections vary widely, depending on the location and severity of the infection.

Many people carry staph bacteria and never develop staph infections. However, if you develop a staph infection, there’s a good chance that it’s from bacteria you’ve been carrying around for some time.

These bacteria can also be transmitted from person to person. Because staph bacteria are so hardy, they can live on inanimate objects such as pillowcases or towels long enough to transfer to the next person who touches them. They also can survive drying, extremes of temperature, stomach acid and high levels of salt.

Many kinds of skin infections are caused by staph bacteria as well. They include boils, impetigo, cellulitis, and staphychoccal scaled skin syndrome. Additionally, staph bacteria are one of the most common causes of food poisoning. Symptoms come on quickly, usually within hours of eating a contaminated food. Symptoms usually disappear quickly, too, often lasting just half a day.

A staph infection in food usually doesn’t cause a fever. Signs and symptoms you can expect with this type of staph infection include:

  • Nausea and vomiting
  • Diarrhea
  • Dehydration
  • Low blood pressure

Risk Factors 

A variety of factors — including the status of your immune system and even the types of sports we play — can increase our risk of developing staph infections. So can underlying health conditions. Certain disorders or the medications used to treat them can make us more susceptible to staph infections. People who may be more likely to get a staph infection include those with:

  • Diabetes who use insulin
  • HIV/AIDS
  • Kidney failure requiring dialysis
  • Weakened immune systems — either from a disease or medications that suppress the immune system
  • Cancer, especially those who are undergoing chemotherapy or radiation
  • Skin damage from conditions such as eczema, insect bites or minor trauma that opens the skin
  • Respiratory illness, such as cystic fibrosis or emphysema

Of great concern, staph bacteria remain highly present in hospitals, where they attack the most vulnerable, despite vigorous attempts to eradicate them. They are particularly invasive to people with weakened immune systems, burns and surgical wounds. If staph bacteria invade your bloodstream, you may develop a type of infection that affects your entire body. Called sepsis, this infection can lead to septic shock — a life-threatening episode with extremely low blood pressure.

These commonsense precautions can help lower our risk of developing staph infections:

  • Wash hands.Careful hand-washing is our best defense against germs. Wash hands briskly for at least 20 seconds, then dry them with a disposable towel and use another towel to turn off the faucet. If your hands aren’t visibly dirty, you can use a hand sanitizer containing at least 60 percent alcohol.
  • Keep wounds covered.Keep cuts and abrasions clean and covered with sterile, dry bandages until they heal. The pus from infected sores often contains staph bacteria, and keeping wounds covered will help keep the bacteria from spreading.
  • Reduce tampon risks.Toxic shock syndrome is caused by staph bacteria. Since tampons left in for long periods can be a breeding ground for staph bacteria, you can reduce your chances of getting toxic shock syndrome by changing your tampon frequently, at least every four to eight hours. Use the lowest absorbency tampon you can and try to alternate tampons with sanitary napkins whenever possible.
  • Keep personal items personal.Avoid sharing personal items such as towels, sheets, razors, clothing and athletic equipment. Staph infections can spread on objects, as well as from person to person.
  • Wash clothing and bedding in hot water.Staph bacteria can survive on clothing and bedding that isn’t properly washed. To get bacteria off clothing and sheets, wash them in hot water whenever possible. Also, use bleach on any bleach-safe materials. Drying in the dryer is better than air-drying, but staph bacteria may survive the clothes dryer.
  • Take food safety precautions.Wash your hands before handling food. If food will be out for a while, make sure that hot foods stay hot — above 140 F (60 C) — and that cold foods stay at 40 F (4.4 C) or below. Refrigerate leftovers as soon as possible.

Staph bacteria are very adaptable, and many varieties have become resistant to one or more antibiotics. For example, only about 10 percent of today’s staph infections can be cured with penicillin.

The emergence of antibiotic-resistant strains of staph bacteria — often described as methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus (MRSA) strains — has led to the use of IV antibiotics, such as vancomycin, with the potential for more side effects. Your doctor may perform tests to identify the staph bacteria behind your infection, and to help choose the antibiotic that will work best. Antibiotics commonly prescribed to treat staph infections include certain cephalosporins, nafcillin or related antibiotics, sulfa drugs, or vancomycin.

Staph infections spread quickly, and can be contagious, so it’s critical that potential infections get diagnosed by a medical professional immediately. Waiting a day or two can be the difference between life and death, literally.


Be sure to check out the CBIA Healthy Connections wellness program at your company’s next renewal. It’s free as part of your participation in CBIA Health Connections!