MRSA - What Is It?

BY Michael Russell

What does MRSA mean? MRSA stands for methicillin resistant Staphylococcus aureus, or multiple resistance Staphylococcus aureus. You may sometimes see it referred to as Golden Staph or just plain 'Staph'. Staph is a microorganism commonly found on the body that occasionally causes infection. As a matter of fact, about 3 out of 10 people have MRSA bacteria living on their skin. Methicillin is an antibiotic that has been used to treat Staph. MRSA is a strain of Staph resistant to methicillin and some other antibiotics. It is therefore more difficult to treat than normal Staph.

How can it affect me? Staph normally lives on the surface of the body without causing any problems. It is only a problem when, in open wounds and ulcers, it can cause infection. For example, S. aureus bacteria may sometimes get into the bloodstream and travel to various internal organs and cause infections like chest infection (pneumonia), bone infection (osteomyelitis), blood toxicity (septicemia), heart valve infection (endocarditis), etc. Prevention of infection rests mainly on encouraging good hand washing practices amongst staff, visitors and patients.

Where on the body do Staphs live? Staphs normally live in the nose, arm pit and near the genital area (perineum).

Do all people carry Staph? Most people carry Staph at least occasionally. This has nothing to do with personal hygiene, but seems to be a special property of our skin cells. People who are already in the hospital, who are very ill or have open wounds, sores or ulcers are more prone to carrying Staph and subsequently develop an infection from it. Having said that, MRSA is becoming more prevalent in people outside hospital, but much less common than hospitalized people.

How do I know if I am carrying MRSA? Swabs can be taken from the areas where MRSA is usually found.

How do I know if I am infected with MRSA? Again, a sample of swab as well as blood, urine, body fluid can be collected and sent for the pathology lab to be tested. If Staph is detected, further tests are done to determine which antibiotic will effectively kill the bacteria.

If I am found to be carrying MRSA, is this dangerous and what can I do? Just having MRSA in your nose or on your skin is not dangerous. However, to stop it being transferred into wounds, it might be recommended that you have it treated.

Does the swab detect other infections or organisms? The swabs are processed in such a way that only Staphs, including MRSA, can grow. If you or your doctor think you have an infection, you may need additional tests specifically for this.

Can I get rid or MRSA if I am found to be carrying it? It may not be necessary, but if it is, topical treatments will be prescribed.

Can MRSA be treated if it causes an infection? MRSA is no more infectious than other strains of S. aureus bacteria. While MRSA is a resistant bug, we still have a number of antibiotics which are effective. If antibiotic treatment is required, your doctors will discuss this with you.

Can I get rid of MRSA by going out into the sun? Most organisms including MRSA live in areas of the body not normally exposed to the sun. If they are on the skin they live between tiny skin folds so are hidden from the sun.

Can I have visitors? Yes, you can! Staff will discuss with you and your visitors any special requirements needed. You and your visitors should wash your hands when leaving your room.

Michael Russell Your Independent guide to Medicine

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