MRSA, MRSA Me: How To Avoid A Community-Acquired Staph Infection

mrsaIf you’re at all squeamish, just skip the below paragraph. Look away. Look away!

Last Thursday, while a surgeon was lancing my second ginormous skin abscess in six weeks, I found myself thinking, “WTF?” I’d never had an abscess in my life until moving back to Colorado three months ago. In September, I required an emergency room visit, and this time I ran a fever and suffered muscle and joint pain.

I wasn’t truly concerned, however, until my doctor informed me that I have MRSA (Methicillin-Resistant Staphylococcus aureus; pronounced “mur-sah“). “I hope it’s not MRSA,” my mother had fretted back in September, when I told her about my first abscess. “How on earth would I get that?” I scoffed. I think I actually snorted before I said it. Payback is a bitch.

Much has been made of MRSA in recent years, with good reason. The over- and improper use of antibiotics has created a super-strain of Staphylococcus aureus that’s the bane of hospitals, in particular. Also at higher risk are the elderly and immunocompromised, although healthy people (presumably, me) can get MRSA, as well. And unfortunately, once you’ve had MRSA, you’re more likely to have future occurrences.

Staph normally lives on human skin and in the nose, but it’s capable of surviving on surfaces from hours to months, depending upon conditions. Untreated, MRSA can be extremely serious, resulting in blood infections; even death. Antibiotics aren’t always successful at treating even regular staph, because they often can’t penetrate deep enough within the tissue to reach an abscess. That’s why incision-and-drainage (I & D) is critical if you have a large abscess.

The fact is, most healthy people aren’t going to get MRSA, because their immune system will prevent it. Repeat: You don’t need to wear a Hazmat suit in public, or stockpile Purell. I’m a firm believer that our society’s anti-bacterial-everything obsession is a leading cause of superbugs like MRSA, and many researchers and members of the medical community agree.

This time of year, however, stress, holiday fun fatigue and travel make our bodies more susceptible to germs, be they the common cold, flu or staph. Additionally, there are two types of MRSA: HA (Hospital-Acquired), and CA (Community-Acquired). Obviously, it’s the latter that affects the general population.purellCA-MRSA can enter body through prolonged skin-on-skin contact (it’s not considered a sexually transmitted disease, however); a cut, nick, scrape or puncture, or via contaminated items like towels, razors, gym equipment or clothing. Although not considered a threat to travelers, per se, crowded conditions on public transit can potentially be a source of infection, particularly if you’re high-risk (MRSA can also be transmitted via coughing if the person’s lungs are infected). Some people are merely carriers of the bacteria, and never suffer symptoms.

I think I’ve become susceptible to MRSA for two reasons. I recently learned that those with eczema (aka, me) are more prone to staph infections, due to breaks in the skin. Since relocating back to Colorado, the dry climate has kickstarted my dormant eczema.

I also have a somewhat overactive immune system, the result of a serious infectious disease I acquired in Ecuador nearly four years ago. So, although it goes against my dirtbag backpacker “a little dirt/roaches/mouse turds/undercooked chicken/filthy hands will make my immune system stronger” credo, I’ve learned to carry a large stash of Purell. I’m also vigilant about hand washing, and wiping down gym equipment. I prepare for long-haul flights by swilling Emergen-C before and after. That’s what made my MRSA diagnosis so surprising.

Now that I’m on the right antibiotics, I’m fine, but I’ve stepped up the precautionary measures. My infectious disease doctor suggested I buy some OTC chlorhexidrine cleanser – Hibiclens is a popular brand – for the shower. I’ve accepted that I need to do laundry even more frequently (gym clothes, for example, should be washed after every wearing if you have MRSA). Bed linens must be changed with monotonous frequency. But, you know what they say: a gallon of Purell is worth not spending a day in the ER.

For information on MRSA symptoms, treatment and prevention, click here.

[Photo credits: staph, Flickr user mollyluise;passenger, Flickr user miss karen]