Q: How can I protect my family from antibiotics-resistant staph infections?
Last August, as Elissa Thompson of Glendale enjoyed a late summer Saturday swim, a small bump on her lower back began to itch and ache. “At first, I thought it was a bug bite,” she recalls. But the next day, the area had enlarged to the size of a half dollar. It turned black and began to throb. By Tuesday, the pain was so intense that she couldn’t bear to sit down.
A nerve-wracking week passed as Thompson began a round of antibiotics and waited for tissue culture results. She could hardly take care of her 3-year-old son, Aidan, because of the pain. “Nothing they were giving me was working,” she says. Emergency room doctors saw that the infection was actually killing tissue as it spread. They lanced the area and began the painful process of extracting portions of decay from a pinky-finger-sized incision on Thompson’s back. Finally, after about a week had passed, test results revealed the answer: Thompson was suffering from MRSA, a type of staph infection resistant to antibiotics.
You’ve probably heard of staph, which is short for Staphylococcus aureus. It’s a common type of bacteria that lives on the skin or in the noses of healthy people. Staph causes common infections such as boils or pimples, which do not always need to be treated with antibiotics. But MRSA, or methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus, is a less common strain of staph — a superbug — that can be far more serious. MRSA resists many familiar antibiotics like oxacillin, penicillin and amoxicillin.
MRSA is spread when people come in to contact with an inanimate object infected with the bacteria, says University of Arizona pediatric infectious disease specialist Sean Elliott, M.D. Infection occurs only when the bacteria actually enter the body, usually through bug bites, a stubbed toe, a skinned knee or any other abrasion, cut or scratch. At first, a MRSA infection can be mistaken for a spider bite, says Elliott. It appears as a round, raised red boil with a dark center. The area becomes tender and spreads outward as the infected tissue begins to decay.
In the past, people in closed settings (hospitals, prisons, nursing homes or rehabilitations centers) were most at risk of contracting the type of staph infections that resist antibiotics, says Elliott. But health officials are seeing an upswing in MRSA cases outside of those settings. They worry that doctors might not recognize a MRSA infection because it is only recently that the bacteria has begun to affect the community at large. Some experts blame the emergence of these resistant bacteria on the overuse — and misuse — of antibiotics.
Who is at risk? Elliot says that young children who attend day care centers and older children and teens who engage in sports with skin-to-skin contact should take extra care. A combination of sweat and poor hygiene can create situations where bacteria can thrive. MRSA can lurk in football pads, on wrestling mats or on benches at the gym. “School sports teams absolutely have a very high risk of transferring the infection,” says Elliott. Players with abscesses need to cover them and avoid sharing equipment. Families that seem to trade worsening skin infections, such as boils, should seek attention from a primary care physician. And practicing good hygiene remains key in protecting against infection.
Thompson has recovered. Still, she remains baffled about how she picked up the bacteria in the first place. “The doctors were puzzled, too. I wasn’t in contact with anyone who had anything. Of anybody, how could this happen to me?”