MRSA stands for methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus. It is a strain of bacteria that is not killed by antibiotics including methicillin, which is normally used to treat Staphylococcus aureus infections.

Staphylococcus aureus (commonly referred to as "staph") is a strain of bacteria that is normally found on the skin of healthy people. If it gets into the skin, it can cause skin infections that result in small red bumps that look like boils or pimples. Staph can also cause more serious infections, such as pneumonia and blood infections.

How serious is it?

Although staph skin infections may start out as seemingly minor infections, they can quickly become deep infections that result in painful abscesses that need to be drained or that spread throughout the body, causing infections in the blood, bones, joints, heart, and lungs. Regular staph infections are commonly treated with methicillin.

However, MRSA infections cannot be treated with this antibiotic. In addition, MRSA is resistant to many other widely used antibiotics, and therefore this infection can be very difficult to treat. This is why MRSA is sometimes referred to as a "superbug." There are only a few medications that are capable of treating this infection.

How is it spread?

Staph bacteria are normally found on the skin or in the noses of 30% of people without causing an infection. It is usually harmless until it enters the skin through a cut or a wound. A smaller percentage of people who have staph on their skin or in their nose have the MRSA strain. Even if the person harbouring the bacteria is not infected, they can still spread the bacteria and cause infection in others. MRSA can be spread through physical contact, clothing, towels, openings in the skin, contaminated surfaces, and contaminated medical devices.

Who is at risk?

Hospital patients, seniors, and the ill are most susceptible to MRSA because they already have a weakened immune system and it is harder for their body to fight the infection. Hospital patients are also more likely to encounter invasive devices such as dialysis units, catheters, and feeding tubes that carry the risk of MRSA.

Although MRSA infections most commonly occur in places like hospitals and long-term care facilities, a research study has shown that MRSA is more commonly found in the community than previously thought. These community-associated MRSA infections appear to be different strains from the ones in the hospital setting.

The "five C's" can be used to remember the settings that allow easier spread of MRSA:

  • crowding
  • frequent skin-to-skin contact
  • compromised skin (e.g., cuts)
  • contaminated items and surfaces
  • lack of cleanliness

Common areas in which community-associated MRSA can be spread include schools, dormitories, and daycare centres.

How can I prevent the spread of MRSA infections?

There are many ways you can help prevent the spread of MRSA infections and protect yourself from infection, including:

  • Covering your wounds. If you have a staph or MRSA skin infection, you should keep the area clean and covered with a bandage to prevent spreading the infection to others.
  • Washing your hands frequently for at least 15 seconds at a time. You can prevent the spread of infection at home, work, school, or health care facilities by simply washing your hands. Use an alcohol-based sanitizer when you can't wash your hands.
  • Avoiding sharing items that can allow MRSA to spread. These include towels, clothing, sports equipment, and razors.
  • Taking a shower right after a sporting event or practice.
  • Making sure your doctor or surgeon changes into clean attire (gloves, masks, gowns) before being in contact with you.
  • Using antibiotics properly. Overuse and misuse of antibiotics can contribute to the resistance of MRSA. Always take antibiotics as directed by your doctor. Do not stop antibiotics until your doctor advises you to and do not take someone else's antibiotics.

Lisa Tourountzas