Most of us host staphylococcus (staph) bacteria on our skin or in our noses and don't even know it. But if we have a break in the skin or nasal membrane, they can enter our bodies, multiply and lead to infection. That's when trouble erupts, depending on the type of infection:
1. Boils: “These are the most common staph infection: pockets of pus that usually develop in a hair follicle or sweat gland under your arms, in the groin or on the buttocks,” says Durban dermatologist Dr Ebrahim Abdulla. The area becomes red, swollen and tender until the boil forms a head and drains.
2. Wound infections: Any graze or cut can be invaded by staph infection, growing red, swollen and painful and discharging liquid with an unpleasant smell.
3. Cellulitis: This is an infection of the deep layers of skin, but causes redness, painful swelling and heat on the surface, and suppurating sores, usually on the lower legs and feet. “You may also have shivers, chills and nausea,” says Dr Abdulla.
4. Impetigo: This shows as a painful rash with big blisters that can ooze then grow a yellow crust. They’re most common around the mouth and nose and are sometimes called 'school sores' because they are highly contagious, spreading rapidly between children.
5. Staphylococcal scalded skin syndrome (SSSS): Cruelly, newborns and children younger than five are most at risk of this, the most serious skin staph infection. It's caused by bacteria releasing a toxin that produces fever, rash and blisters, and when these break and the skin peels, a raw red surface develops much like a burn.
Treatment for staph infections
“Antibiotics are the go-to treatment for staph infections, but the right ones need to be prescribed for the specific type of bacteria, so always see a doctor,” says Dr Abdulla. They will often need a swab for laboratory analysis to determine the strain of bacteria rather than resort to a general wide-spectrum antibiotic.
In severe cases, especially with SSSS, antibiotics need to be given intravenously in hospital. Doctors may also opt to lance the infection to drain it, he says. Antibiotics must always be taken exactly as directed and the course completed, or drug resistant strains can develop. Already, methicillin-resistant staphylococcus aureus (MRSA) is immune to many antibiotics and has become a public health threat.
How to prevent a staph infection
The best you can do to avoid staph infection is to practise good basic hygiene. “Regularly wash your hands with soap and running water and dry them thoroughly – bacteria thrive on damp surfaces,” says Dr Abdulla. In public restrooms, use a disposable towel if possible (blow-dry machines may harbour germs).
Always wash hands before and after touching or cleaning an infection, before handling food, and after going to the loo, blowing your nose or touching pets.
Contact sports make it especially easy for staph bacteria to spread through abrasions or through sharing equipment, towels or clothing.
If you live with someone who has a staph infection, don't share personal items, and wash your hands well after being in contact. Wash towels and bed linen too, on a hot cycle, though some staph bacteria can survive this.
Take special care, warns Dr Abdulla, if you have a weak immune system, or wounds or conditions which make you susceptible to infection, such as HIV/Aids, diabetes that requires insulin, kidney failure needing dialysis, respiratory illness such as cystic fibrosis, or cancer, especially if you are on chemotherapy or radiation.
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