What Is Staphylococcus?

Staphylococcus (staph) is a type of bacteria that can cause many types of infections on and in your body. Staph (pronounced "staff") is extremely common. Of every 10 people, three have it on their skin.

While it is the leading cause of skin infection, it often causes no disease. But when disease develops, if left untreated the dangers can be extremely serious.

More than 30 subspecies of Staphylococcus bacteria cause infections. The most common type of Staph infection is caused by Staphylococcus aureus. If S. aureus bacteria infect your body, either through a wound on your skin or through your airways, they can cause serious infections.

Avoiding Toxic Shock Syndrome

Menstruating women may develop toxic shock syndrome. This is a rare, life-threatening illness caused by toxins secreted by staph bacteria and associated with tampon use. The danger is greater when tampons are not changed frequently. The risk can be reduced by:

  • Changing tampons every 4 to 8 hours
  • Using low-absorbency tampons
  • Alternating tampon use with sanitary pads

Retained IUD's, recent surgery, skin burns and cuts also increase the risk of toxic shock syndrome.

What Are the Signs and Symptoms of a Staph Infection?

To avoid these infections, you will need to know what to look for.

Skin Infections

Symptoms of staphylococcal disease of the skin include pus-filled abscesses. These are often called boils or furuncles. Pain, swelling, and redness often target the infected area, and pus may drain from it too.

Blood Infections

Staph infection in the blood is called bacteremia or sepsis. Symptoms can include fever, chills, and low blood pressure.


Diseases Caused by Staph

Staphylococcus can cause many different types of infections in and on around your body. Most of these infections cause localized inflammation or abscesses, which are pockets of infection.


Staphylococcus infections usually appear on your skin's surface. The most common are impetigo, a crusting of the skin, and cellulitis, which may leave your skin red and swollen.


Breastfeeding women can get a staph infection of the breast called mastitis, which can release bacteria into a mother's milk.


Staph bacteria in the lungs can cause pneumonia.

Blood Poisoning

Staph infection in your blood can be particularly dangerous. This is commonly called blood poisoning (septicemia). These infections can spread. Internal places like your bones and organs are vulnerable to them.


When a staph infection gets into the bone it can cause osteomyelitis, a rare but serious joint infection.


Staphylococcal blood poisoning can also infect your heart or heart valves. This is called endocarditis.


If a staph infection gets into the bloodstream, it can spread to other organs and cause severe and life-threatening infections called sepsis or bacteremia. Sepsis can lead to shock or multi-organ failure, which can rapidly lead to death.


What Is Antibiotic-Resistant Staphylococcus aureus?

Methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus, often abbreviated to MRSA, is a type of staph bacteria. MRSA is considered a type of "SUPERBUG," because it has become resistant to antibiotics commonly used to treat it. Those antibiotics include methicillin, from which it gets its name, and also penicillin, amoxicillin, and oxacillin and possibly others.

MRSA causes illness in hospitals, nursing homes, prisons and other health facilities. These are called HA-MRSA (healthcare-associated methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus). It has also caused infections outside of healthcare facilities. These cases are called CA-MRSA (community-associated methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus.

How Are Staph Infections Diagnosed?

A doctor may diagnose a minor Staphylococcus skin infection by examining the skin. Lab tests are not usually needed. Serious staph infections of the blood, pneumonia, or endocarditis (inflammation of the inner chambers of the heart) usually require cultures.

In these cases, you may be required to provide a sample of blood, pus, or other tissues. These are then grown in the lab to confirm the presence of the Staphylococcus bacterium.

If staph bacteria are confirmed, another test called a sensitivity test can be run to see which antibiotics will kill the bacteria.

How Are Staph Infections Treated?

Treatment for staph infections depends on the location and severity of the infection. Minor skin infections can be treated with topical antibiotic ointments, or oral antibiotics. Abscesses are generally treated with incision and drainage or surgery.

More severe infections in large areas of the skin, other body organs, or the bloodstream are generally treated with intravenous antibiotics. MRSA infections may be resistant to many antibiotics.


Reviewed By Charles Patrick Davis, MD, PhD on 11/12/2020


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