Have you ever heard of “staph” or a “staph infection”? The term “staph” is a shortening of the name of a type of bacteria, staphylococcus aureus. About 30% of people have staph on their bodies. Staph can live on the skin without causing any problems. However, it can cause mild-to-severe or even life-threatening infections in people if it enters the body. You may have heard staph infections of the skin, but staph can cause infections to any part of the body including blood, organs, and tissues of the body.
What are some of the health conditions staph can cause?
- Skin and soft tissue infections including:
- Impetigo—characterized by red, itchy sores that break open and leak a clear fluid or pus for a few days followed by a crusty yellow or “honey-colored” scab which forms over the sore. These usually heals without leaving a scar.
- Folliculitis—which is an inflammation or infection of the hair follicles and is characterized by red bumps or a white head around hair follicles.
- Abscesses or boils—characterized by painful, red or pink areas on the skin filled with a pocket of pus.
- Cellulitis—characterized by redness, swelling, and pain of the skin and is due to an infection of the soft tissue of the skin.
- Scalded skin syndrome—characterized by blisters that break open, leaving red, skin, resembling a burn.
- Food poisoning—which occurs when food is contaminated with staph is eaten and can cause nausea, vomiting, and diarrhea.
- Toxic shock syndrome—this is a life-threatening condition caused by certain bacterial infections, especially staph bacteria, and typically develops as a complication after surgery, significant skin wounds, or most frequently, overuse of certain kinds of tampons.
- Bacteremia—which is also known as a bloodstream infection. This infection is caused when staph bacteria enter the bloodstream, often as a progression of an infection in another part of the body.
- Infections around the heart or other organs
- Bone and joint infections
Who is most at risk for staph infections?
Anyone can develop a staph infection. Staph can be transmitted among people through direct contact or even through use of shared items, but staph can live on your skin for a long time without causing you a problem. People with any kind of cut, abrasion, or open wound (even damaged skin from insect bites or eczema) are at a higher risk for developing a staph infection. People who participate in activities, like contact sports, that increase their likelihood of skin damage likewise increase their risk of staph infections. Lastly, people who eat food prepared in unsanitary conditions are also at a higher risk to get food poisoning from staph. However, getting staph does not mean you will get significantly ill. Most people recover from a staph infection without any serious illness or complication.
People who are at greater risk for serious illness or complications due to staph bacteria are those
- With weakened immune systems.
- Who are hospitalized.
- Who use invasive medical devices such as catheters, breathing tubes, and feeding tubes.
How is a staph infection diagnosed?
If you have symptoms of a staph infection, your healthcare provider will perform an examination and order testing based on the type of condition you may have. Your healthcare provider will ask you questions that may help them determine your risk factors or help with the diagnosis.
The physical examination will include an examination of the affected parts of your body and vital signs. Your healthcare provider may order tests such as a wound culture, blood and urine tests, x-rays, or other diagnostic tests. If your healthcare provider suspects that you have a more serious infection, you may have to be evaluated and treated in a hospital setting. Your healthcare provider will make recommendations as the care that is most appropriate for you.
How are staph infections treated?
Treatment of staph infections can include topical, oral, or intravenous (IV) antibiotics, wound drainage, or removal of an infected medical device. Treatment depends on the specific condition; consult with your healthcare provider about your treatment plan.
Can staph infections be prevented?
You can reduce the risk of staph infections by practicing good hygiene, especially handwashing; keeping wounds covered with dry, sterile bandages; practicing safe food handling; not sharing personal items with others; washing your laundry in the hottest setting possible, and changing tampons at least every 4–8 hours.
Elizabeth Baorto, “Staphylococcus Aureus Infection,” Medscape, January 15, 2019.
Dennis L. Stevens, Alan L. Bisno, Henry F. Chambers, et al., “Practice Guidelines for the Diagnosis and Management of Skin and Soft Tissue Infections: 2014 Update by the Infectious Diseases Society of America,” Clinical Infectious Diseases 59, no. 2 (2014), accessed September 2, 2020.
Thomas L. Holland and Vance G. Fowler, “Clinical manifestations of Staphylococcus aureus infection in adults,” UpToDate, updated October 22, 2019. Mayo Clinic, “Staph infections,” May 6, 202.