MRSA stands for methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus, a type of staph bacteria. Many strains of staph bacteria are quite common, and most of us have staph bacteria living harmlessly on our skin or in our noses.
Staph bacteria that enter the body through a cut, scrape, or rash can cause minor skin infections. Most of these heal on their own if the wound is kept clean and bandaged, but sometimes antibiotics are needed.
What makes the MRSA strain different from other staph bacteria, though, is its resistance to most of the antibiotics that usually treat staph infections. (Methicillin is an antibiotic, which is why the strain is called “methicillin-resistant.”) When bacteria are resistant to antibiotics, they are harder to kill. They become resistant by changing in some way that affects the ability of the antibiotic to do its job.
The bacterial changes that lead to resistance can be caused by improper use of antibiotics, such as:
- taking antibiotics for things that they can’t cure, like viruses
- not taking antibiotics properly when they are needed (like not taking all the medicine prescribed or taking another person’s medicine that wasn’t prescribed for you)
The good news is that MRSA infections are rare in kids. And if a healthy child does get one, a doctor can treat it.
How MRSA Spreads
MRSA is not a new infection. The first case was reported in 1968. In the past, MRSA usually affected people with weakened immune systems, such as those living in long-term care facilities like nursing homes.
But now some otherwise healthy people who are not considered at risk for MRSA are getting the infection. This is called community-associated MRSA (CA-MRSA) because it affects people outside of hospitals and nursing homes.
Groups of kids who spend a lot of time together in close quarters (such as in schools, camps, or college dorms) are most at risk. MRSA can spread through direct contact with infected skin or by sharing personal items (towels, razors, etc.) that have touched infected skin.
Sometimes, people can be “carriers” of MRSA, which means that the bacteria stay on or in their bodies for days, weeks, or even years. They can spread it to others, even if their skin looks normal. That’s why washing hands well and often is so important.
Signs and Symptoms
MRSA infections often develop around open sores, like cuts, scrapes, or bites. But they also can happen on intact skin. Red, swollen, painful bumps appear that sometimes weep fluid or pus. Some kids also develop a fever.
In more serious cases, the infection can spread to the blood, lungs, bones, joints, or other parts of the body. MRSA also can cause infections like pneumonia. Luckily, complications like these are very rare in healthy kids.
MRSA infections need different medicines and treatments than other staph infections do. For example, if a skin abscess is caused by MRSA, the doctor is more likely to have to drain the pus from it in order to clear the infection.
Doctors may prescribe antibiotics to help treat a MRSA infection. More severe infections might need IV antibiotics, given in a hospital.
MRSA may sound scarry because of its resistance to some antibiotics. But these simple steps can help prevent MRSA infections:
- Adults and kids should wash their hands often using plain soap and water for at least 20 seconds. Alcohol-based hand sanitizers or wipes are OK for when there’s no access to soap and water.
- Keep cuts or broken skin clean and covered with a bandage.
- Don’t share razors, towels, uniforms, or other items that come into contact with bare skin.
- Shared sports equipment should be covered with a barrier (clothing or a towel) to prevent skin from touching it. The equipment also should be cleaned before each use with a disinfectant that works against MRSA.
To help prevent other bacteria from becoming resistant to antibiotics, it’s important for kids and adults to take antibiotics as prescribed. That means never giving your child someone else’s prescription or saving antibiotics “for next time.”
Always give antibiotics in the full amount until the prescription is finished (unless a doctor says it’s OK to stop early). Germs that are allowed to hang around after incomplete treatment of an infection are more likely to become resistant to antibiotics.
When to Call the Doctor
Call the doctor if:
- your child has an area of skin that is red, painful, swollen, and/or filled with pus
- your child has an area of swollen, painful skin and also feels feverish or sick
- skin infections seem to be passing from one family member to another (or among students at school), or if two or more family members have skin infections at the same time
Reviewed by: Rupal Christine Gupta, MD
Date reviewed: June 2014