Good Hygiene Is Key To Preventing MRSA

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Methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus (MRSA) is a germ with a big name that is suddenly causing big problems for schools and communities across the nation. Commonly referred to as a "superbug," MRSA is a kind of bacteria that causes staph infections that do not respond to treatment with common antibiotics, such as penicillins. Until recently, cases of MRSA were most commonly seen in hospitals and healthcare facilities; however, a growing number of reported infections are now emerging in the general population.

"Whether it's in a hospital or at a school, MRSA is usually transmitted by direct skin-to-skin contact," said Kathleen G. Beavis, MD, FCAP, a pathologist at Stroger Hospital of Cook County (formerly Cook County Hospital) in Chicago, who specializes in microbiology and infectious diseases. "What most people may be unaware of is that an individual does not have to appear sick -- or present symptoms -- to carry this type of bacteria on their bodies. In fact, these individuals are the most common source of transmission."

In addition to direct contact with an infected person, MRSA bacteria can live on common surfaces, such as a table, for a day or weeks and can be transmitted when someone touches it. If a person does contract MRSA, the infection will most likely appear as a skin infection in the form of pustules or boils, which often are red, swollen, painful, or have pus or other drainage. These skin infections commonly occur at the sites of visible skin trauma, such as cuts and abrasions, and areas of the body covered by hair.

Most MRSA-related skin infections can be effectively treated, with or without antibiotics, by draining the pus. However, more than 94,000 Americans contracted MRSA infections in 2005, with nearly 19,000 of those cases associated with death. That number significantly exceeds the 17,011 people who died from the AIDS virus that same year, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) statistics.

"Because MRSA has been in healthcare settings for years, most healthcare workers are familiar with the precautions to take to protect themselves and their patients," said Dr. Beavis. "With the recent cases of students coming in contact with this kind of bacteria at schools, it is important for everyone to practice good personal hygiene, such as regular hand washing and covering cuts with bandages, to reduce their chances of contracting or spreading this potentially life-threatening type of bacteria."

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-- Pathologists, physicians who examine cells and tissue to diagnose diseases and illnesses, such as MRSA, recommend the following tips to prevent MRSA infections:

-- Wash your hands regularly with soap and water or use an alcohol-based hand sanitizer to keep your hands clean. Also, practice other good hygiene, such as showering immediately after exercising.

-- Use bandages to cover cuts or other open sores.

-- Don't share towels, razors, or other personal items that come into contact with bare skin.

-- When in the gym, use a towel to cover equipment that shared, such as weight-training benches.

-- At work, school or home, regularly clean surfaces that are either frequently touched or that come into direct contact with people's skin.

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