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MRSA: What You Should Know

Handwashing

Whether in a health care facility or at home, practicing effective hygiene is the best way to prevent the spread of MRSA.

You have probably read the recent headlines: “Health Club Closed in MRSA Scare.” “Middle School ‘Superbug’ Outbreak.” “Football Player Hospitalized with Staph Infection.” In October 2007, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) issued a report calling attention to the MRSA strain of bacteria, and news reports appeared of several deaths. Since then, some Americans report feeling a sense of panic. Parents have kept their children home from school. Sports events have been cancelled. Gym members aren’t sure whether their workout is safe.

Is the fear warranted? And what is MRSA, anyway? As with all infectious diseases, equipping yourself with some basic information is the first step to protecting yourself and your loved ones…and to putting your mind at ease by taking concrete steps rather than just worrying. Here are some of the most common questions most people are asking.

1. What is MRSA?

“MRSA” stands for “methicillin-resistant staphylococcus aureus.” Translated into plain English, this means it is a variety of staph infection that has become resistant to the common penicillin-type antibiotics that doctors have traditionally prescribed for this type of infection.

2. Where did MRSA come from?

Researchers believe that the “staph” bacterium has always coexisted with human beings. Bacteria, like all organisms, change over time to adapt to their environment. So when penicillin and similar antibiotics arrived on the scene for fighting infection, certain strains of the staphylococcus bacteria gradually evolved an immunity to those drugs. The resistant forms first appeared in the 1960s in healthcare settings, and are called healthcare-associated MRSA (HA-MRSA). Then, around 1990, a new strain of the bacteria, community-associated MRSA (or CA-MRSA), began to affect even healthy people. It is this last type that has been receiving the most attention recently, though healthcare organizations have been aggressively fighting the healthcare-associated variety since it was first noticed.

3. Who is at risk for MRSA infection?

People with weakened immune systems are at greatest risk. Though most MRSA infections still take place among patients and sometimes workers in hospitals, nursing homes, dialysis centers or other healthcare settings, the community-associated MRSA strain is also becoming more common, even in healthy people. It is often associated with occupations and activities that include:

  • close skin-to-skin contact
  • skin cuts or abrasions
  • crowded living conditions
  • poor hygiene.

For example, outbreaks have occurred in sports teams, military training camps, daycare centers and in prison populations.

4. How dangerous is MRSA?

First of all, it is important to realize that a person can have staph bacteria on their skin or in their nose with no symptoms. Indeed, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) estimates that one-third of the population carries the bacteria, with about 1% of those being the MRSA type. It is only when the bacteria cause illness that we speak of an “infection.” In otherwise healthy people, MRSA infections are most commonly limited to the skin. However, if the bacteria enter the body (most often through a cut or scrape), the infection can spread to the blood, lungs, bones, joints or heart. Resulting blood poisoning and pneumonia can even be fatal.

5. What are the symptoms?

MRSA infections most commonly appear on the skin. A sore or series of sores may appear as abscesses or boils. Many people mistake the sore for a “spider bite.” The area may be hot to the touch, red, swollen and painful, often with pus or other drainage.  If the bacteria have entered the bloodstream, symptoms can include shortness of breath, fever, chills, fatigue or muscle ache. If you suspect MRSA infection in yourself or a loved one, contact your healthcare provider right away.

6. Can MRSA be cured?

Fortunately, the nickname “superbug” is something of a misnomer, because in most cases MRSA can be treated with certain types of antibiotics. If a patient has a suspicious skin condition, the physician first takes a sample from the wound for diagnosis by a lab. Treatment of a skin lesion often consists of opening and draining the wound. (This should only be done by a healthcare provider!) Once the lab results are in, the doctor may then prescribe an oral antibiotic from a class that is still effective against the particular strain of MRSA. It is important to take your medication as recommended, and finish all doses. If the bacteria has already entered the bloodstream, the patient may be hospitalized and receive intravenous antibiotics and other treatment.

7. What’s the best way to avoid contracting MRSA?

MRSA is transmitted most frequently by direct skin-to-skin contact, but the bacteria may also survive on contaminated items. The best way to avoid infection is to practice good hygiene:

  • Wash your hands frequently with soap and water, or use an alcohol-based hand sanitizer.

  • If you have a cut or scrape, keep it covered until it heals.

  • Never share towels, razors and other personal items.

  • If you exercise in a public facility or participate in contact sports, shower well after working out, and wear rubber sandals in the shower.

  • Be sure the facility follows standard disinfecting practices, such as cleaning sports equipment regularly with an antiseptic solution.

8. What’s the best way to prevent the spread of MRSA?

Hospitals and other healthcare facilities have protocols in place for preventing the spread of MRSA. And in the community, individuals who are diagnosed with the infection should also follow a set of precautions to avoid spreading the germ:

  • Keep skin sores covered with a clean, dry bandage.

  • Wash your hands frequently or use an alcohol-based hand sanitizer, especially after touching the wound or bandages, and encourage others in the household to do so as well.

  • Don’t share personal items such as razors, towels or clothing.

  • Sanitize soiled sheets, towels, and clothes by washing in hot water and laundry detergent. Drying fabrics in a hot dryer, rather than air-drying, also helps kill bacteria.

9.  Where can I find out more?

MRSA bug
A group of MRSA bacteria, magnified 20,000 times. (Photo: CDC)

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) offers comprehensive information and updates about Community-Associated MRSA, as well as the healthcare-associated strain.  

The Mayo Clinic consumer website includes the article Infectious Disease: MRSA Infection with in-depth information about the disease.

The New York Times includes a collection of articles and updates about MRSA and is a good source of recent news about the topic. 

The National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases is another good source of comprehensive information about MRSA.

Researchers are hard at work studying how organisms such as the staph bacteria develop resistance to antibiotics. This new information may lead to effective new antimicrobial drugs, even a vaccine someday. Meanwhile, protect yourself against MRSA and other germs by practicing sensible sanitary precautions, taking care of your overall health, and being alert for any symptoms of infection.

The information in this article is not intended to replace the advice of your healthcare provider. If you have questions about preventing MRSA infection, or if you think you may have contracted or come into contact with the bacteria, contact your physician or other healthcare provider.

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Right at Home is a national organization dedicated to improving the quality of life for those we serve. We fulfill that mission through a dedicated network of locally owned, franchised providers of in-home care and assistance services.


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