Methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus (MRSA) infection is caused by Staphylococcus aureus bacteria — often called "staph." Decades ago, a strain of staph emerged in hospitals that was resistant to the broad-spectrum antibiotics commonly used to treat it. Dubbed methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus (MRSA), it was one of the first germs to outwit all but the most powerful drugs. MRSA infection can be fatal.
Staph bacteria are normally found on the skin or in the nose of about one-third of the population. If you have staph on your skin or in your nose but aren't sick, you are said to be "colonized" but not infected with MRSA. Healthy people can be colonized with MRSA and have no ill effects. However, they can pass the germ to others.
Staph bacteria are generally harmless unless they enter the body through a cut or other wound, and even then they often cause only minor skin problems in healthy people. But in older adults and people who are ill or have weakened immune systems, ordinary staph infections can cause serious illness.
In the 1990s, a type of MRSA began showing up in the wider community. Today, that form of staph, known as community-associated MRSA, or CA-MRSA, is responsible for many serious skin and soft tissue infections and for a serious form of pneumonia.
Signs and symptoms
Staph infections, including MRSA, generally start as small red bumps that resemble pimples, boils or spider bites. These can quickly turn into deep, painful abscesses that require surgical draining. Sometimes the bacteria remain confined to the skin. But they can also burrow deep into the body, causing potentially life-threatening infections in bones, joints, surgical wounds, the bloodstream, heart valves and lungs.
Although the survival tactics of bacteria contribute to antibiotic resistance, humans bear most of the responsibility for the problem. Leading causes of antibiotic resistance include:
* Unnecessary antibiotic use in humans. Like other superbugs, MRSA is the result of decades of excessive and unnecessary antibiotic use. For years, antibiotics have been prescribed for colds, flu and other viral infections that don't respond to these drugs, as well as for simple bacterial infections that normally clear on their own.
* Antibiotics in food and water. Prescription drugs aren't the only source of antibiotics. In the United States, antibiotics can be found in beef cattle, pigs and chickens. The same antibiotics then find their way into municipal water systems when the runoff from feedlots contaminates streams and groundwater. Routine feeding of antibiotics to animals is banned in the European Union and many other industrialized countries. Antibiotics given in the proper doses to animals who are sick don't appear to produce resistant bacteria.
* Germ mutation. Even when antibiotics are used appropriately, they contribute to the rise of drug-resistant bacteria because they don't destroy every germ they target. Bacteria live on an evolutionary fast track, so germs that survive treatment with one antibiotic soon learn to resist others. And because bacteria mutate much more quickly than new drugs can be produced, some germs end up resistant to just about everything. That's why only a handful of drugs are now effective against most forms of staph.
Because hospital and community strains of MRSA generally occur in different settings, the risk factors for the two strains differ.
Risk factors for hospital-acquired (HA) MRSA include:
* A current or recent hospitalization. MRSA remains a concern in hospitals, where it can attack those most vulnerable — older adults and people with weakened immune systems, burns, surgical wounds or serious underlying health problems. A 2007 report from the Association for Professionals in Infection Control and Epidemiology estimates that 1.2 million hospital patients are infected with MRSA each year in the United States. They also estimate another 423,000 are colonized with it.
* Residing in a long-term care facility. MRSA is far more prevalent in these facilities than it is in hospitals. Carriers of MRSA have the ability to spread it, even if they're not sick themselves.
* Invasive devices. People who are on dialysis, are catheterized, or have feeding tubes or other invasive devices are at higher risk.
* Recent antibiotic use. Treatment with fluoroquinolones (ciprofloxacin, ofloxacin or levofloxacin) or cephalosporin antibiotics can increase the risk of HA-MRSA.
These are the main risk factors for community-acquired (CA) MRSA:
* Young age. CA-MRSA can be particularly dangerous in children. Often entering the body through a cut or scrape, MRSA can quickly cause a wide spread infection. Children may be susceptible because their immune systems aren't fully developed or they don't yet have antibodies to common germs. Children and young adults are also much more likely to develop dangerous forms of pneumonia than older people are.
* Participating in contact sports. CA-MRSA has crept into both amateur and professional sports teams. The bacteria spread easily through cuts and abrasions and skin-to-skin contact.
* Sharing towels or athletic equipment. Although few outbreaks have been reported in public gyms, CA-MRSA has spread among athletes sharing razors, towels, uniforms or equipment.
* Having a weakened immune system. People with weakened immune systems, including those living with HIV/AIDS, are more likely to have severe CA-MRSA infections.
* Living in crowded or unsanitary conditions. Outbreaks of CA-MRSA have occurred in military training camps and in American and European prisons.
* Association with health care workers. People who are in close contact with health care workers are at increased risk of serious staph infections.
When to seek medical advice
Keep an eye on minor skin problems — pimples, insect bites, cuts and scrapes — especially in children. If wounds become infected, see your doctor. Ask to have any skin infection tested for MRSA before starting antibiotic therapy. Drugs that treat ordinary staph aren't effective against MRSA, and their use could lead to serious illness and more resistant bacteria.
Screening and diagnosis
Doctors diagnose MRSA by checking a tissue sample or nasal secretions for signs of drug-resistant bacteria. The sample is sent to a lab where it's placed in a dish of nutrients that encourage bacterial growth (culture). But because it takes about 48 hours for the bacteria to grow, newer tests that can detect staph DNA in a matter of hours are now becoming more widely available.
In the hospital, you may be tested for MRSA if you show signs of infection or if you are transferred into a hospital from another healthcare setting where MRSA is known to be present. You may also be tested if you have had a previous history of MRSA.
Both hospital and community associated strains of MRSA still respond to certain medications. In hospitals and care facilities, doctors generally rely on the antibiotic vancomycin to treat resistant germs. CA-MRSA may be treated with vancomycin or other antibiotics that have proved effective against particular strains. Although vancomycin saves lives, it may grow resistant as well; some hospitals are already seeing outbreaks of vancomycin-resistant MRSA. To help reduce that threat, doctors may drain an abscess caused by MRSA rather than treat the infection with drugs.
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