Methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus (MRSA) is a bacterium that causes infections in different parts of the body. It’s tougher to treat than most strains of staphylococcus aureus — or staph — because it’s resistant to some commonly used antibiotics.
The symptoms of MRSA depend on where you’re infected. Most often, it causes mild infections on the skin, like sores, boils, or abscesses. But it can also cause more serious skin infections or infect surgical wounds, the bloodstream, the lungs, or the urinary tract.
Though most MRSA infections aren’t serious, some can be life-threatening. Many public health experts are alarmed by the spread of tough strains of MRSA. Because it’s hard to treat, MRSA is sometimes called a “super bug.”
What Causes MRSA?
Garden-variety staph are common bacteria that can live in our bodies. Plenty of healthy people carry staph without being infected by it. In fact, one third of everybody has staph bacteria in their noses.
But staph can be a problem if it manages to get into the body, often through a cut. Once there, it can cause an infection. Staph is one of the most common causes of skin infections in the U.S. Usually, these are minor and don’t need special treatment. Less often, staph can cause serious problems like infected wounds or pneumonia.
Staph can usually be treated with antibiotics. But over the decades, some strains of staph — like MRSA — have become resistant to antibiotics that once destroyed it. MRSA was first discovered in 1961. It’s now resistant to methicillin, amoxicillin, penicillin, oxacillin, and other common antibiotics known as cephalosporins.
While some antibiotics still work, MRSA is constantly adapting. Researchers developing new antibiotics are having a tough time keeping up.
Staph skin infections, including MRSA, generally start as swollen, painful red bumps that might look like pimples or spider bites. The affected area might be:
- Warm to the touch
- Full of pus or other drainage
- Accompanied by a fever
These red bumps can quickly turn into deep, painful boils (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.
Who Gets MRSA?
MRSA is spread by contact. So, you could get MRSA by touching another person who has it on the skin. Or you could get it by touching objects that have the bacteria on them. MRSA is carried by about 2% of the population (or 2 in 100 people), although most of them aren’t infected.
There are two different populations of people who get MRSA — one is in decline — those who get it in hospitals or other health care environments — and the other is on the rise — those who get it in the community.
MRSA infections are common among people who have weak immune systems who are in hospitals, nursing homes, and other health care centers. Infections can appear around surgical wounds or invasive devices, like catheters or implanted feeding tubes.
According to the CDC, a concertred effort by the 2013 National Action Plan to Prevent Healthcare-Associated Infections helped reduce bloodstream infections caused by MRSA by 50% by 2020.
Community-Associated MRSA (CA-MRSA)
Alarmingly, MRSA is also showing up in healthy people who have not been hospitalized. This type of MRSA is called community-associated MRSA, or CA-MRSA.
CA-MRSA skin infections have been identified among certain populations that share close quarters or have more skin-to-skin contact. Examples are team athletes, military recruits, prison inmates, and children in daycare. But more and more CA-MRSA infections are being seen in the general community, especially in certain geographic regions.
CA-MRSA is also more likely to affect younger people. In a study of Minnesotans published in TheJournal of the American Medical Association, the average age of people with MRSA in a hospital or health care facility was 68. But the average age of a person with CA-MRSA was only 23.