Stemming the spread of common — and potentially deadly — infections

Germs, bacteria and viruses surround us, but fortunately, the human immune system is typically well equipped to fight many common bugs. For those that we can’t fight on our own, there are effective countermeasures to help us contain or prevent infections that range in intensity from inconvenient to deadly. Yet with all the medications and interventions available, education, awareness and common sense remain the best prescription for staying healthy and avoiding infections.

This month, Wellness Matters focuses on dangerous infections; next month (July), we’ll examine common contagious and infectious diseases.

It’s critical to not underestimate the severity and danger associated with infections. Regardless of how they’re contracted, if left untreated, infections that spread through insect, animal or human bites, cuts, punctures, or the sharing of toothbrushes, razors and other personal items can turn deadly quickly.

Signs and symptoms vary depending on the organism causing the infection, but often include fever and fatigue, or discomfort at the wound site. Mild maladies may respond to rest and home remedies, but some infections are life-threatening, need medical intervention and may require hospitalization.

Here are a few common infections that everyone should be aware of and which require medical attention:

Staph infections are 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.

Skin infections caused by staph bacteria include:

  • The most common type of staph infection is the boil, a pocket of pus that develops in a hair follicle or oil gland. The skin over the infected area usually becomes red and swollen. If a boil breaks open, it will probably drain pus. Boils occur most often under the arms or around the groin or buttocks.
  • This contagious, often painful rash can be caused by staph bacteria. Impetigo usually features large blisters that may ooze fluid and develop a honey-colored crust.
  • This infection of the deeper layers of skin causes skin redness and swelling on the surface of your skin. Sores (ulcers) or areas of oozing discharge may develop, too. Cellulitis occurs most often in the lower legs and feet and can be life threatening if left untreated.

Methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus (MRSA) infection is caused by a strain of staph bacteria that’s become resistant to the antibiotics commonly used to treat ordinary staph infections.

Most MRSA infections occur in people who’ve been in hospitals or other healthcare settings, such as nursing homes and dialysis centers. When it occurs in these settings, it’s known as health care-associated MRSA (HA-MRSA). HA-MRSA infections typically are associated with invasive procedures or devices, such as surgeries, intravenous tubing or artificial joints.

Another type of MRSA infection has occurred in the wider community — among healthy people. This form, community-associated MRSA (CA-MRSA), often begins as a painful skin boil. It’s spread by skin-to-skin contact. At-risk populations include groups such as high school wrestlers, child care workers and people who live in crowded conditions.

Treating dangerous infections

Antibiotics are the most effective course of treatment for fighting infections. Your doctor may perform tests to identify what type of staph bacteria is 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.

Vancomycin increasingly is required to treat serious staph infections because so many strains of staph bacteria have become resistant to other traditional medicines. But vancomycin and some other antibiotics have to be given intravenously.

If you’re given an oral antibiotic, be sure to take it as directed, and to finish all of the medication prescribed by your doctor. Ask your doctor what signs and symptoms you should watch for that might indicate your infection is worsening.

These common-sense precautions can help prevent or reduce the likelihood of developing infections such as staph:

  • Wash your hands. Careful hand-washing is our best defense against germs. Wash hands briskly for at least 15 to 30 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 62 percent alcohol.
  • Clean a wound, puncture or bite, and use an astringent, alcohol or antibiotic cream or pad. Oftentimes, simply washing the affected area with soap and water is enough. Even better, use one of the many available antibacterial creams or wipes for treating the area as soon as possible.
  • 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 using tampons and 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.

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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!