Key Points about Staph Infections

  • A staph infection results from a type of bacteria that is found on the skin or in the nose of about 25 percent of the population.
  • These infections occur when staphylococcus bacteria enter the body, often through a cut or skin abrasion.
  • Staphylococcus infections are usually mild and may appear as a red or swollen boil filled with pus.
  • Staph infections are treated with antibiotics.
  • Increasingly, certain strains of staphylococcus bacteria are becoming resistant to common antibiotics, making some staph infections very dangerous and potentially life-threatening.

Call your doctor if your possible staph infection is accompanied by a fever, intense pain or redness, or red marks radiating from the wound.

Overview

A staph infection, or staphylococcus infection, results from a type of bacteria that is found on the skin or in the nose of about 25 percent of the population.

Staphylococcus bacteria are usually harmless, until they enter the body, often through a cut on the skin, and cause an infection. Mild staph infections often appear as a red or swollen boil filled with pus.

These infections are usually minor and can be treated with antibiotics, but increasingly, staphylococcus infections are becoming resistant to current antibiotics. Antibiotic-resistant staph infections are dangerous and potentially life-threatening.

Call your doctor if your possible staph infection is accompanied by a fever, intense pain or redness, or red marks radiating from the wound.

Staph infection causes

A staph infection results when staphylococcus bacteria enters the body through an open cut or other pathway. Staphylococcus bacteria can be found on many common surfaces, and even lives on the skin of about 1 in 4 people.

Outbreaks of staph infections often occur in schools, prisons, athletic team locker rooms, and military settings.

Staph infection risk factors

You may be more likely to acquire a staph infection if you:

  • Have certain medical conditions or take certain medications
    • The following conditions and treatments can increase your risk:
      • Taking insulin for diabetes
      • Cystic fibrosis or emphysema
      • Having dialysis for kidney failure
      • Undergoing chemotherapy or radiation for cancer
      • HIV/AIDS
  • Have recently been hospitalized
    • Staphylococcus bacteria are often found in hospitals, where it can those who are already immunocompromised or who have severe open wounds.
  • Wear an invasive device for medical treatment
    • Devices such as catheters and feeding and breathing tubes can provide a pathway through which staphylococcus bacteria can enter the body.
  • Play contact sports
    • If you develop cuts or other skin injuries during contact sports, staphylococcus has an opportunity to enter the body. The infection can then spread to others through direct skin-contact or though sharing equipment.

Staph infection symptoms

Symptoms of staph infections range from mild severe. In order from least severe to most severe, symptoms may include:

  • Skin boils collections of pus that may be surrounded by red, swollen skin
  • Impetigoa painful, blistering, honey-colored rash that leaks fluids and is contagious
  • Cellulitisa deep skin infection characterized by skin swelling, redness, and leaking fluids
  • Staphylococcal scalded skin syndrome — a rash accompanied by a fever and blisters that expose red, raw-looking skin after breaking

Staphylococcus bacteria can also cause food poisoning, which is often accompanied by nausea, vomiting, and diarrhea.

Staph infection complications

Staph infections can lead to serious complications, particularly if caused by an antibiotic-resistant form of the bacteria. Severe complications that can result from staph infections include:

  • Sepsis — If staphylococcus enters a person’s bloodstream, the bacteria can travel throughout the body, infecting other organs including the heart, brain, and lungs. This can cause a person to enter septic shock, which is a life-threatening condition.
  • Toxic shock syndrome — This complication occurs when staphylococcus bacteria release toxins that causes symptoms such as a fever, vomiting, red skin rashes, and muscle aches. It can result from staphylococcus acquired through tampons or some surgeries. Toxic shock syndrome that is left untreated can be life-threatening and lead to limb loss.
  • Septic arthritis — If staphylococcus bacteria reach the joints such as in the knees, hips, or shoulders, it can cause a fever, as well as extreme swelling and pain in those joints.

Staph infection prevention

The following measures can decrease your likelihood of acquiring staph infection:

  • Make sure any cuts or skin injuries are covered and cleaned with soap and water, chlorhexidine or hypochlorous acid
  • Wash your hands often
  • When using tampons, choose the option with the lowest absorbency and change them as often as recommended on the box
  • Refrain from sharing items such as razors, towels, and athletic equipment
  • Use hot water to wash bed sheets and clothing

Staph infection diagnosis

When diagnosing a staph infection, your doctor will perform a physical examination of the affected area, and may collect a tissue sample to identify the presence of staphylococcus bacteria.

Staph infection treatment

To treat staph infections, your doctor will:

  • Prescribe antibiotics as needed
  • Drain the fluids from affected wounds
  • Remove any invasive devices such as tubes or catheters that could allow the bacteria to enter your body

In severe cases, people whose staph infections that travel deep into the body may need to undergo surgery to have the affected areas cleaned. 

When to seek care

Call your doctor if your possible staph infection is accompanied by a fever, intense pain or redness, or red marks radiating from the wound.

Next Steps

Staph infections are contagious while you have a fluid-filled wound. To prevent staph from spreading, avoid skin-to-skin contact with other people by making sure your wound is covered, until it has healed.