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

If 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.CA-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]

Sleeping In Seattle: The Consequences Of SAD

I recently mentioned my somewhat reluctant decision to relocate from Seattle when the right opportunity presents itself (A job and nice one bedroom in Berkeley, North Oakland or Boulder anyone? Anyone?).

While my move was precipitated by a layoff in February, I’ve known for a year that a relocation was necessary, regardless of my affection for my adopted city – despite my beautiful, relatively affordable apartment just two blocks from Lake Union and my peaceful, tree-lined neighborhood full of pretty houses brimming with gardens and backyard chickens. Even though I can walk everywhere, crime is virtually nonexistent and my landlord rocks.

The real reason I’m leaving Seattle is because I suffer from Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD) and arthritis (due to a bizarre infectious disease acquired in Ecuador three years ago). SAD is thought to result from a shift in the body’s circadian rhythms, due to changes in sunlight patterns (think of how certain mammals hibernate in winter). Shorter, darker days also increase the amount of melatonin, a hormone linked to the regulation of sleep and waking, released by the pineal gland. Perhaps my being a Southern California native is to blame (although I’m officially a resident of Colorado…it’s complicated, I know).
It took me a long time to commit to a move to the Pacific Northwest, despite my love of the region, because I was concerned about the climate. But, like many before me, I was seduced by a record-breaking Seattle summer three years ago when the temperature soared into the upper 80s and the sky remained a clear, vivid blue. The job prospects appeared promising and an incredible sublet fell into my lap. I was in Seattle for the weekend for work and a month later, I was living there. It was like I’d hijacked myself.

My friend Chris has lived in Seattle since 1994. We were hanging out during my visit when I announced I was going to move. “It’s not usually like this,” he cautioned. I was busy gaping at Mt. Rainier in the distance.

He didn’t lie. I’ve been waiting for the weather to be like that ever since. I was filled with anticipatory dread before my first winter, which is why I’d initially only committed to a sublet. It turned out to be the mildest winter Seattle had seen in years, causing me to mock the locals I’d met. “Just wait,” they told me ominously (for a different viewpoint, check out my Gadling colleague Pam Mandel’s ode to Seattle winters, here).

The last two winters – which have been harsh, even by Seattle standards – have kicked my ass. It’s not the “snow” we’ve gotten; I love snow. But Colorado averages 300 days of sunshine a year, and it has a tolerable, dry cold. Seattle cold seeps into the bones, and summer is a negligible term for most of that season. I actually didn’t realize I had post-infectious arthritis until two years ago, when the Fourth of July dawned wet and dismal, and my joints felt like they’d entered their golden years overnight.

Since then, I’ve experienced varying intensities of arthralgia in my hands and knees as well as low-level to serious fatigue. As a runner, this was problematic and my depression increased because I had turned from physically active, adventurous outdoor fanatic to couch potato. I often required daily naps, which wracked me with guilt.

Not until last summer, while visiting my former home of Boulder, Colorado, did I fully realize the impact Seattle was having on my physical and mental health. On my first morning, to quote a SAD-suffering friend, I felt like “someone had turned the world’s lights back on.” I marveled at the sunshine and warm air. I shocked myself by effortlessly doing a three-mile run – the first half uphill. Every day, I stayed outside until sunset. My arthritis had vanished. I felt like me, again: the spaz who can’t stand to be indoors when the sun is shining. I was productive and active and a much, much happier person. I had the same experience while in northern Chile in August.

I returned to Seattle and wham! I morphed into the worst of the seven dwarfs again: sleepy, grumpy and lazy. Work circumstances forced me to postpone a move, and it seemed like every day it was either pissing rain or the sky was low and leaden. I had difficulty concentrating on work, and was irritable and overemotional. Desperate, I sought the care of an excellent psychiatrist, who combined talk therapy with antidepressants.

While getting laid off sucked, it was also a strange relief. The one thing tying me to Seattle was gone. The thought of leaving is disappointing, but life is too short to live embedded in the couch. The economy is picking up in the Bay Area and I’ve had some very promising job leads.

It’s hard to admit that the color of the sky exerts such influence over your mood. However, I’m not alone; according to Mental Health America, three out of four SAD sufferers are women.

My advice: the sooner you admit it, the sooner you can get on with living. Whether you require phototherapy, antidepressants, extra Vitamin D, counseling, acupuncture, warm-weather vacations, or relocation, the bottom line is that SAD is very real and can have a devastating impact upon your quality of life as well as your personal and professional relationships and career. And, like a romance that’s not quite right, it’s not worth sticking it out. Me? I’ve decided that Seattle is ideal for the occasional weekend fling.

Signs you may be suffering from SAD (these symptoms are most likely to occur in winter, but some forms of SAD do occur during the summer)

  • Inability to concentrate or increase in irritability
  • Feelings of sadness, unhappiness, or restlessness
  • Fatigue and/or lethargy
  • Anxiety
  • Increase in appetite/weight gain
  • Social withdrawal
  • Increase in sleep and daytime sleepiness
  • Loss of interest in work and activities you once enjoyed

Where to get help:

Talk to your health care provider, who can refer you to a specialist. For additional information and support, check out the Seasonal Affective Disorder Association (SADA) website.

[Photo credits:girl, Flickr user Meredith_Farmer; clouds, Flickr user CoreBurn;sun, Flickr user Warm ‘n Fuzzy]