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]

Travel Smarter 2012: Travel tips for health and wellness

Films like “Contagion” (which I very much enjoyed, and not just because Gwyneth Paltrow bites it within the first 10 minutes) instill a paranoia in the public consciousness about the hazards of air travel. It’s true, however, that most public transportation is the equivalent of a mobile petri dish; one can’t deny the inherent germiness lurking within. Subsequently, antibacterial hand gel is my new best friend.

There are other quasi-self-inflicted, travel-related maladies: neck and back pain, deep vein thrombosis (DVT), infectious disease, foodborne illness, stress–all of which kind of make you wonder why we travel in the name of relaxation, but I digress.

For many, myself included, part of the thrill of recreational travel is the element of risk involved, even if said danger involves nothing more than scarfing down a few street tacos. Regardless of why you travel, there are always new products on the market designed to make your trip more comfortable, or minimize your chances of getting sick. New research on the hazards and benefits of travel also keep us informed about what we can do to stay healthier on the road.

Below are my picks for making travel in 2012 a little less treacherous:

1. Reduce your risk of DVT
New studies show that choosing the window seat on a long flight can increase your chances of developing DVT. A theoretical DVT risk known as “economy class syndrome” (how’s that for an “f-you” to airlines?) has been debated for years, and attributed to the lack of legroom in coach.

Now, however, the American College of Chest Physicians have determined that the real issue is that window-seat fliers have limited opportunities to walk and stretch their legs during lengthy flights, which can lead to potentially fatal blood clots that may travel to the lungs (pulmonary embolism). There are a number of factors that contribute to one’s risk of DVT including age, preexisting health conditions, certain medications, and recent surgery, but even if you don’t fit these criteria, you should always try to get out of your seat and/or do some stretching exercises and leg movements once an hour during long flights. In other words, consider the aisle the path to clot-free veins.

2. Time-release DEET
Some people have no problem dousing themselves in insecticide, personal health and environmental side effects be damned. I used to silently sneer at those people while I sat around the campfire, my unprotected skin providing nutrients to legions of winged, blood-sucking creatures. What were a few bites (Note: it was never just a few bites; try dozens) compared to not getting cancer or maintaining the purity of the local watershed?

Then I got sick as a result of deadly bacteria-harboring sandflies, and now I’m one of those people who understand why DEET exists. I still don’t like it–it’s definitely not something I, nor the CDC, recommend using with abandon–but it’s critical for protecting yourself from mosquitoes, sandflies, ticks, and other potentially harmful insects, in conjunction with protective attire such as long socks, long-sleeved shirts, and pants (you can also purchase insect-repellent clothing). Note that I’m not taking into account malarial conditions, in which case you should be supplementing your DEET applications with a doctor-prescribed anti-malarial drug.

I was thrilled when I recently discovered controlled release DEET at my neighborhood travel store. Sawyer® Premium Controlled Release Insect Repellent is designed to “reduce the rate of DEET absorption” by 67% per application, and “extend the duration of its effectiveness.” This 20% DEET lotion is also odorless, so you don’t have to huff noticeably toxic fumes all day.

3. Hummingbird Lumbar Pillow
If you have existing back problems or an epic backpacking adventure planned, this little baby from innovative gear company Hummingbird is the bomb. Measuring 7″ x 14″, it weighs just 3.5 ounces, rolls or packs flat, and will keep your lower back happy while camping, or riding a Third World bus sans shock absorbers on a rutted highway with potholes large enough to swallow a Mini Cooper.

4. Simply Being Guided Meditation app
I’m way too ADD to meditate, but this suggestion came to me from my Gadling colleague, and fellow meditation-phobe, McLean Robbins. She loves this app, which runs through a brief series of relaxation exercises. As McLean says, “Perfect for shutting out the world on a terrible plane ride or easing into sleep in an unfamiliar hotel bed.” The app is available for iPhone, iPad, Blackberry, and Android.

5. Maqui berry
Move over, açaí, there’s a new free-radical fighter in town. Chilean maqui berry, which is FDA-approved and contains the highest ORAC (a system of measure for antioxidants) level in the world, has hit the U.S. Only a few companies manufacture it, but I recommend Isla Natura brand (Full disclosure: the company is owned by a friend of mine, which–in addition to maqui’s health benefits–is why I feel comfortable touting this product). Maqui (Aristotelia chilensis) is indigenous to southern Chile and was traditionally used by the Mapuche Indians as a medicinal aid.

Isla Natura’s USDA and EU-certified organic (Fair Trade certification pending) wild fruits are harvested by hand, dried, ground, and sold in eight-ounce packets. Use one tablespoon in smoothies or on top of yogurt or oatmeal as a daily dietary supplement, but also consider it an immune booster for when you’re traveling.

Bonus: you’ll avoid the high sugar content of Emergen-C, and the “licking a dirt floor” flavor of açaí, and Isla Natura provides employment to local indigenous families at its small Chiloe processing plant. Travel-friendly capsules will be available in April; go to the company’s website for information on scientific studies. To order, click here.

[flickr image via]