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MRSA: Causes, symptoms, diagnosis, treatment and prevention

What is MRSA?

MRSA is a bacterial infection that can be resistant to treatment with many common antibiotics.

MRSA stands for meticillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus and it is sometimes called a superbug.

Infections with MRSA are more common in people in hospital wards or nursing homes and the NHS has made hygiene measures to tackle MRSA in hospitals a priority.

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.

MRSA Infection

What causes MRSA?

Staphylococcus, or staph, is a common bacterium that can live on our bodies. Many 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 meticillin, 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 weakened immune systems.

Infections can appear around surgical wounds or invasive devices, like catheters or implanted feeding tubes.

Community-acquired MRSA (CA-MRSA)

MRSA is also showing up in healthy people who have not been staying 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 meticillin and other antibiotics. There is a variant form producing a toxin destructive to white blood cells, a vital part of the immune system.

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