Amy was used to the occasional outbreak of zits, but the bump on
her neck was different. It started out fairly small and itchy, but
now was big and red and sore. Amy's mom took her to the doctor
and they were surprised to hear that the bump was a boil, an
infection usually caused by
What Is a Staph Infection?
) is the shortened name for
-kus), a type of bacteria. These bacteria can live harmlessly on
many skin surfaces, especially around the nose, mouth, genitals,
and anus. But when the skin is punctured or broken for any reason,
staph bacteria can enter the wound and cause an infection.
There are more than 30 species in the staph family of bacteria,
and they can cause different kinds of illnesses - for example, one
kind of staph can cause urinary tract infections. But most staph
infections are caused by the species
Staphylococcus aureus (S. aureus)
most commonly causes skin infections like folliculitis, boils,
impetigo, and cellulitis that are limited to a small area of a
can also release toxins (poisons) that may lead to illnesses like
food poisoning or
toxic shock syndrome
How Do People Get Staph Infections?
In teens, most staph infections are minor skin infections.
People with skin problems like burns or eczema may be more likely
to get staph skin infections.
People can get staph infections from contaminated objects, but
staph bacteria often spread through skin-to-skin contact - the
bacteria can be spread from one area of the body to another if
someone touches the infected area.
Staph infections can spread from person to person among those
who live close together in group situations (such as in college
dorms). Usually this happens when people with skin infections share
things like bed linens, towels, or clothing. Warm, humid
environments can contribute to staph infections, so excessive
sweating can increase someone's chances of developing an
Serious Staph Infections
Although it's very rare, infections caused by
can occasionally become serious. This happens when the bacteria
move from a break in the skin into the bloodstream. This can lead
to infections in other parts of the body, such as the lungs, bones,
joints, heart, blood, and central nervous system.
Staph infections in other parts of the body are less common than
staph skin infections. They are more likely in people whose immune
systems have been weakened by another disease - or by certain
medications, like chemotherapy for cancer.
Occasionally patients having surgery may get more serious
types of staph infections. The good news is that hospital staff
take many precautions to avoid infection in someone having surgery.
That's why they carefully clean the area being operated on, use
sterile equipment, and sometimes give a person antibiotics.
You may also have heard about
for short. MRSA is a type of staph that has built up an immunity to
the antibiotics doctors usually use to treat staph infections.
Although MRSA can be harder to treat, in most cases the infection
heals with the right treatment.
What Are the Signs of a Staph Skin Infection?
Staph skin infections show up in lots of different ways. Some of
the more common conditions often caused by
skin infections are:
-tus) is an infection of the hair follicles, the tiny pockets
under the skin where hair shafts (strands) grow. In folliculitis,
tiny white-headed pimples appear at the base of hair shafts,
sometimes with a small red area around each pimple. This occurs
often where people shave or have irritated skin from rubbing
-kul), commonly known as a boil, is a swollen, red, painful lump
in the skin, usually due to an infected hair follicle. The lump
usually fills with pus, growing larger and more painful until it
ruptures and drains. Furuncles often begin as folliculitis and
then worsen. They are most frequently found on the face, neck,
buttocks, armpits, and inner thighs, where small hairs can often
be irritated. A cluster of several furuncles is called a
-kul). A person with a carbuncle may feel ill and feverish.
-go) is a superficial skin infection that mostly happens in young
children, but it can sometimes affect teens and adults. Most
impetigo infections affect the face or extremities like the hands
and feet. An impetigo skin infection begins as a small blister or
pimple, and then develops a honey-colored crust. Impetigo
doesn't usually cause pain or fever, although the blisters
may itch and can be spread to other parts of the body by
-tus) is an infection involving the skin and areas of tissue
below the skin surface. It begins as a small area of redness,
pain, swelling, and warmth on the skin. As this area begins to
spread, a person may feel feverish and ill. Cellulitis can affect
any area of the body, but it's most common on the legs.
-lum), commonly known as a stye, is a staph infection in the
eyelid. It develops when glands connected to the base of the
eyelash become swollen and irritated. A person with a stye will
usually notice a red, warm, uncomfortable, and sometimes painful
swelling near the edge of the eyelid.
Many of these staph infections are minor and can be treated at
home. If a minor infection gets worse - for example, you start
feeling feverish or ill or the area spreads and gets very red or
and hot - it's a good idea to see a doctor.
generally show up 2 or more days after the injury or surgery. The
signs of a wound infection (redness, pain, swelling, and warmth)
are similar to those found in cellulitis. A wound infection may be
accompanied by fever and a generally ill feeling. Pus or a cloudy
fluid can drain from the wound and a yellow crust (like that in
impetigo) can develop. If you think you have a wound infection
after surgery, or you have a serious wound that seems to be
infected, call your doctor.
Can I Prevent a Staph Skin Infection?
bacteria are everywhere. Many healthy people carry staph bacteria
without getting sick.
Cleanliness and good hygiene are the best way to protect
yourself against getting staph (and other) infections - including
MRSA. You can help prevent staph skin infections by washing your
hands frequently and by bathing or showering daily.
Keep areas of skin that have been injured (such as cuts,
scrapes, eczema, and rashes caused by allergic reactions or poison
ivy) clean and covered. Use any antibiotic ointments or other
treatments that your doctor suggests. If someone in your family has
a staph infection, don't share towels, sheets, or clothing
until the infection has been fully treated.
If you develop a staph infection, you can prevent spreading it
to other parts of your body by being careful not to touch the
infected skin, keeping it covered whenever possible, and using a
towel only once when you clean the area (wash the
towel in hot water afterwards or use disposable towels).
What Can I Do to Feel Better?
How long it takes for a staph skin infection to heal depends on
the type of infection and whether a person gets treatment for it. A
boil, for example, may take 10 to 20 days to heal without
treatment, but treatment may speed up this process. Most styes, on
the other hand, go away on their own within several days.
To help relieve pain from a skin infection, and to help pus
drain out, try soaking the affected area in warm water or applying
warm, moist washcloths. Use a clean washcloth each time - wash used
cloths in soap and hot water and dry them fully in a clothes
dryer. You can also apply a heating pad or a hot water bottle
to the skin for about 20 minutes, three or four times a day.
Pain relievers like acetaminophen or ibuprofen can help reduce
pain until the infection subsides. For some skin infections, it can
also help to wash the area with an antibacterial cleanser
and apply an antibiotic ointment. Cover the skin with a clean
Styes can be treated using warm compresses over the eye (with
the eye closed) three or four times a day. Be sure you always use a
clean washcloth each time. Occasionally, a stye will require a
topical antibiotic. See your doctor if a stye doesn't go away
in a few days.
If you get a staph infection on skin areas that you normally
shave, avoid shaving, if possible, until the infection clears up.
If you do have to shave the area, use a clean disposable razor or
clean your electric razor after each use.
Staph infections can be a nuisance, but the good news is that
they are usually not serious.
Larissa Hirsch, MD
Date reviewed: January 2008
Originally reviewed by
Stephen C. Eppes, MD
Note: All information is for educational purposes only. For specific medical advice,
diagnoses, and treatment, consult your doctor.
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