MRSA: Causes, symptoms, diagnosis, treatment and prevention
What is MRSA?
MRSA (methicillin-resistant staphylococcus aureusis) is a bacterium that causes infections in different parts of the body. It's harder to treat than most strains of staphylococcus aureus (or staph) because it's resistant to some commonly used antibiotics.
The symptoms of MRSA depend on where you're infected. Most often, it causes mild infections on the skin, causing pimples or boils. However, it can also cause more serious skin infections or infect surgical wounds, the bloodstream, the lungs, bone or the urinary tract.
What causes MRSA?
Staphylococcus (staph) is a common bacterium that can live on our bodies. Plenty of healthy people carry staph without being infected by it. In fact, 25 to 30% of us have staph bacteria in our nose, on the skin or carried in our gut.
However, staph can be a problem if it manages to get into the body, often through a cut. Once there, it can cause an infection. Staph is one of the most common causes of skin infections. Usually, these are minor and don't need special treatment. Less often, staph can cause serious problems like infected wounds or pneumonia.
Staph can usually be treated with antibiotics. However, over the years, some strains of staph, like MRSA, have become resistant to antibiotics that once destroyed it. MRSA was first discovered in 1961. It's now resistant to methicillin, amoxicillin, penicillin, oxacillin, and many other antibiotics.
While some antibiotics still work, MRSA is constantly adapting. Researchers developing new antibiotics are having a tough time keeping up.
Who gets MRSA?
MRSA is spread by contact. So you could get MRSA by touching another person who has it on the skin. Or you could get it by touching objects that have the bacteria on them. MRSA is carried, or “colonised”, by about 1 to 3% of the population, although most of them aren't infected.
MRSA infections are most common among people who have weak immune systems and are living in hospitals, nursing homes, and other heath care centres. Infections can appear around surgical wounds or invasive devices, like catheters or implanted feeding tubes. Rates of MRSA infection in the NHS are actually decreasing. According the Health Protection Agency there were 1,481 cases reported across the NHS between April 2010 – March 2011, a reduction of 22% on the total number of cases in the previous year.
Community-acquired MRSA (CA-MRSA)
MRSA is also showing up in healthy people who have not been living in hospital. This type of MRSA is called community-acquired MRSA, or CA-MRSA.
CA-MRSA skin infections have been identified among certain populations that share close quarters or experience more skin-to-skin contact. Examples are team athletes, military personnel, and prisoners. However, more and more CA-MRSA infections are being seen in the general community as well, especially in certain geographic regions.
In the UK, there have been a few cases over the years and to the present day they have been treatable with methicillin and other antibiotics. There is a variant form producing a toxin destructive to white blood cells, a vital part of the immune system.