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What is a staph infection?
Staphylococcal infections, commonly called staph infections, are caused by a genus of bacteria called Staphylococcus. There are more than 30 strains (types) of Staphylococcus bacteria. The most common human pathogen is Staphylococcus aureus. A pathogen is an organism that causes disease.
Healthcare providers prescribe antibiotics to treat staphylococcal infections. In severe cases, a staph infection can cause serious health complications and death.
What parts of your body are affected by staph infection?
Different types of staph bacteria cause problems in various parts of your body. Staphylococcal infection can affect the:
- Skin: Most commonly, Staphylococcus aureus bacteria cause skin infection. This can produce boils, blisters, and redness on your skin. These infections can be anywhere on your body, including your face, often around your mouth and nose.
- Breasts/chest: Breastfeeding (chestfeeding) people can develop mastitis, which causes inflammation (swelling) and abscesses (collections of pus) in their breasts.
- Digestive system: If you eat something containing bacteria, you can get food poisoning, leading to vomiting and diarrhea.
- Bones: The bacteria can infect your bones, causing inflammation and pain. This infection is called osteomyelitis.
- Lungs and heart: If the bacteria get into your lungs, you can develop pneumonia and other breathing problems from the abscesses that can form. Staph bacteria can also damage the heart valves and lead to heart failure.
- Bloodstream: When bacteria release toxins into your body, a serious infection called septicemia (blood poisoning) can occur.
How common is staph infection?
There are millions of skin staph infections in the U.S. every year. Most of them are mild and can be treated with antibiotics. Even if you are healthy, Staphylococcus bacteria commonly live in your nose or on the skin. If the bacteria get inside your body, they can cause problems. When they do, they create many thousands of serious cases of S. aureus infections in the U.S. every year.
Who does staph infection affect?
While anyone can get a staph infection, certain people are at higher risk than others. People who work in hospitals are more likely to have the bacteria on their skin. Staph infections occur most often in people who:
- Inject drugs.
- Are hospitalized, have recently had surgery, or have catheters or medical devices in their body.
- Manage a chronic condition like diabetes, vascular disease or eczema.
- Have a weakened immune system.
- Are breastfeeding.
- Have worn a tampon for an extended time.
- Have congenital heart defects.
- Have had other surgeries on heart valves.
What kinds of staph infections do children get?
Children often get staph infections that we know by other names, like impetigo and styes. These infections, along with wounds that may get infected, are often seen in infants and children. In addition to causing blisters and pimple-like lumps, staph infections in kids can cause chills, fevers and general feelings of being unwell. It’s important to check in with your healthcare provider about any of these types of conditions.
Symptoms and Causes
What are the signs and symptoms of staph infection on the skin?
Symptoms of a staph infection vary depending on the area of your body where the infection occurs. Staph infections occur most often on your skin. They often look like pimples — red and angry and filled with pus. They may leak fluid. You might think you have some kind of bite or ingrown hair.
Signs and symptoms of staph infection on your skin include:
- Abscesses and boils: These painful sores form under your skin, causing redness and pain.
- Cellulitis: This type of infection causes swollen, red, painful skin and tissue just under your skin.
- Folliculitis: A small pimple-like blister forms under your hair follicle and causes pain.
- Impetigo: Fluid-filled blisters or sores form and rupture, leaving a yellow or brown crust.
- Staphylococcal scalded skin syndrome (SSSS): This serious infection causes skin to peel off all over your body. It usually affects infants and small children.
These types of staph infections often start with areas that are tender, warm and red. As they get worse, you may see pus or drainage, with red areas getting bigger. Some staph infections of the skin can become open wounds.
What are the signs and symptoms of staph infection in the body?
When staph infections occur in areas of your body other than your skin, it causes certain conditions with different symptoms of their own. These conditions and their symptoms include:”
- Food poisoning: Symptoms can be severe and include vomiting and diarrhea.
- Mastitis: Occurs mostly in people who are breastfeeding, mastitis leads to inflammation, pain and abscesses.
- Septicemia: Staph bacteria in your bloodstream can cause blood poisoning, also called sepsis. Symptoms include fever and dangerously low blood pressure (hypotension).
- Toxic shock syndrome: A severe form of septicemia, toxic shock syndrome (TSS) symptoms include fever, muscle aches and a rash that looks like sunburn.
- Endocarditis: This infection of the lining of your heart muscle is often caused by staph infection. Your heart valves and actual heart muscle may also be affected. Symptoms include fever, sweating, weight loss and fast heart rate.
How do people get staph infection?
Staph infections spread in the ways that other infections spread, through coughs and sneezes, as well as other ways, including:
- Skin infection: Staph infections on the skin occur when someone comes into contact with the Staphylococcus bacteria. The bacteria are contagious and usually enter the skin through a cut. Pus from a staph infection is contagious. You can be infected if you touch infected discharge or handle towels or other things that have the bacteria on them.
- Food poisoning: The staph bacteria are ingested (eaten), usually due to cross-contamination when handling food.
- Toxic shock syndrome: When a person who is menstruating wears a tampon for an extended time, blood collects on the tampon and creates the ideal environment for bacteria from the vagina to grow. The bacteria enter into the body through tiny cuts in the lining of the vagina.
- Mastitis: In breastfeeding people, bacteria from the baby’s mouth enter your breast through a crack in the nipple. When your breast isn’t emptied often, bacteria get trapped and cause infection.
- Endocarditis: The bacteria enter the heart through your bloodstream, sometimes through your mouth. People with poor dental health or who bleed when brushing their teeth might be more at risk for this happening.
Diagnosis and Tests
How is staph infection diagnosed?
The way your provider determines if you have a staph infection depends on what area of the body is affected. It’s easy to see staph infections on your skin. However, providers often rely on Gram stain testing and bacterial culture tests to diagnose the presence of bacteria and the type.
- Skin: Usually, providers diagnose a staph infection on the skin by examining the affected area. Your provider may choose to take a sample of the skin to test for bacteria.
- Food poisoning: Your provider will ask you long you’ve been ill and how bad the symptoms are. You may need to provide a stool sample.
- Mastitis: After considering your symptoms, your provider may send a sample of your milk to a lab to test for the presence of bacteria.
- Toxic shock syndrome: Your healthcare provider may take a urine or blood sample to check for bacteria. Sometimes, they will also order a CT scan to see if the infection affects your organs.
- Endocarditis: Your provider will base their diagnosis on symptoms, blood tests and an echocardiogram.
How do I know if I have a staph infection?
If you have symptoms of a staph infection, contact your healthcare provider for diagnosis and treatment. See your provider if you or your child has an area of skin that is blistered, irritated or red, especially if there’s also a fever. Only healthcare providers can diagnose and treat a staph infection.
One thing you can do is draw a circle around the red area with a pen so you can see if it continues growing. If the redness gets bigger than the outline, you should definitely call your provider.
Management and Treatment
What are the treatments for staph infection?
Most cases of staph infection on the skin can be treated with a topical antibiotic (applied to your skin). Your healthcare provider may also drain a boil or abscess by making a small incision (cut) to let the pus out.
Healthcare providers also prescribe oral antibiotics (taken by mouth) to treat staph infections inside your body and on your skin. The antibiotic will vary depending on the type of infection. In severe staph infections, providers use IV (intravenous) antibiotics to kill the bacteria.
If you have a more serious staph infection that requires an IV, your provider may suggest that you go to the hospital for a period of time.
How long is staph infection contagious?
If you’re taking antibiotics, you shouldn’t be contagious after 48 hours. It may take longer than that to feel better though.
What are the side effects of the treatment for staph infection?
Side effects vary depending on the type of antibiotic used to treat the staph infection. Side effects from topical ointments can include stinging, itching, and redness in the affected area. Common side effects of oral antibiotics include nausea, vomiting and diarrhea.
What are the complications associated with a staph infection?
If left untreated, staph infections can be deadly. Rarely, staph germs are resistant to the antibiotics commonly used to treat them. This infection, called methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus (MRSA), causes severe infection and death.
This is one reason that it’s important to take your entire prescription of antibiotics. One factor in creating resistance has been that people only take the medication until they feel better, which means that the germs aren’t entirely gone.
What can I do to help relieve symptoms of a staph infection?
It’s important to seek medical help if you think you might have a staph infection. To relieve the symptoms of staph infection on your skin, clean the affected area with soap and water. You can try cold compresses and over-the-counter pain relievers to help with discomfort.
In cases of food poisoning, drink plenty of liquids while you’re recovering to reduce your risk of dehydration.
Massage and warm compresses can relieve the symptoms of mastitis.
How can I prevent a staph infection?
Prevention depends on the type of infection. To reduce your risk of a staph infection, you should follow these tips:
- Skin: To prevent a staph infection of the skin, you should practice good hygiene, keep cuts clean, and wash your hands and body often. Avoid sharing towels and personal items with others.
- Food poisoning: You can reduce your risk of food poisoning by handling food safely, ensuring that it’s cooked properly and refrigerating perishable food within two hours.
- Toxic shock syndrome: You should change tampons every four to eight hours and use tampons with the lowest effective absorbency.
- Mastitis: Breastfeeding people should try to empty the breast completely during every feeding. Whenever possible, let nipples air dry.
Outlook / Prognosis
What is the outlook for someone with a staph infection?
Most times, the outlook is favorable for people who have staph infections and are treated properly. As with most conditions, the best outlooks usually happen when the infection is diagnosed and treated early.
The outlook varies when a staph infection is more serious. You’ll recover more quickly from a superficial skin infection than from a bigger wound or from an infection that develops inside your body.
If the staph infection is systemic (throughout the body, in an organ system), the recovery time is going to take a much longer time. This is why it’s so important to get medical help. Untreated staph infections can be fatal.
When should I call my healthcare provider about a staph infection?
Since a staph infection can become serious very quickly, you should contact your provider right away if you have signs of a staph infection. Only a healthcare provider can diagnose and treat a staph infection.
Frequently Asked Questions
What is the difference between staph infection and MRSA?
They aren’t different. MRSA stands for methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus. MRSA is one type of staph infection, but it’s one that is harder to treat.
Can you get a staph infection in your belly button?
Yes, you can. Some of the risk factors include:
- Getting a navel piercing.
- Have overweight/obesity.
- Having diabetes.
- Wearing tight clothing.
Make sure to keep your belly button clean and dry. This will help to keep bacterial and fungal build-up to the minimum. If you have any discomfort or see signs of infection, call your healthcare provider.
Can staph infections clear up on their own?
Minor staph infections may clear up on their own, but it’s better not to rely on that happening. You should contact your provider because staph infections can get worse quickly and can be serious.
What kills staph infections naturally?
There are some “natural” things that have been used in the past to fight staph infections, like honey, essential oils, ginger, turmeric and garlic. Researchers are doing studies on these older antimicrobial agents (called ancientbiotics by some). Interest in these substances is rising, in part because some germs have become resistant to some types of medications.
At this point in the research, though, it’s unwise to rely only on honey or garlic or anything of that nature for a cure. See your provider to make sure that you’re diagnosed and treated correctly.
A note from Cleveland Clinic
You’ve probably heard about staph infections. You may have already had one. While they aren’t necessarily something to panic about, you do need to contact your healthcare provider if you have signs or symptoms of something being wrong. The most obvious staph infections are seen on the skin.
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