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You've probably heard about MRSA skin infections. The good news is that serious MRSA infections are rare, and most infections can be treated easily. So what is MRSA and how can you protect yourself?

What Is MRSA?

MRSA stands for methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus. Staphylococcus aureus is a type of bacteria with lots of different strains.

Many strains of staph bacteria are quite common. Most people have staph bacteria living on their skin or in their noses without it causing any problems. If staph bacteria get into a person's body through a cut, scrape, or rash, they can cause minor skin infections. Most of these heal on their own if a person keeps the wound clean and bandaged. Sometimes doctors prescribe antibiotics to treat more stubborn staph infections.

What makes the MRSA different from other staph bacteria is that it has built up a resistance to most of the antibiotics doctors usually use to treat staph infections. (Methicillin is a type of antibiotic, which is why the strain is called "methicillin-resistant.")

MRSA skin infections often develop around open sores, like cuts, scrapes, or bites; but they also can occur on intact skin. Red, swollen, painful bumps appear that sometimes weep fluid or pus. Some people also develop a fever.

MRSA abscess illustration

How Do People Get It?

In the past, MRSA usually affected people with weakened immune systems, like people living in nursing homes and other long-term care facilities.

But now some otherwise healthy people who are not considered at risk for MRSA are getting the infection. Doctors call this type of infection community-associated MRSA (CA-MRSA) because it affects people outside of hospitals and nursing homes. People at greater risk for becoming infected with this germ are those who spend a lot of time together in groups, such as in schools, college dorms, or military barracks.


When lots of people come together and are likely to touch the same surfaces, have skin-to-skin contact, or share equipment that has not been cleaned, an infection can spread faster than it would otherwise. If the MRSA bacteria get onto a kneepad, for example, and someone with a skinned knee wears the pad without cleaning it, that person's risk of infection is higher.

MRSA is contagious during a skin infection. Sometimes, people can be "carriers" of MRSA, which means the bacteria stay on or in their body for days, weeks, or even years. They can spread it to others, even if their skin looks normal. That's hand washing is so important.

The bacterial changes that lead to resistance can be caused by improper usage of antibiotics, such as:

The good news is that MRSA infections are rare in teens. And if a healthy person does get one, a doctor can treat it.

How Can I Protect Myself?

MRSA may sound scary because it is resistant to some antibiotics. But it's actually easy to prevent MRSA from spreading by practicing simple cleanliness.

Protect yourself by following these tips:

How Is MRSA Treated?

MRSA infections can need different medicines and approaches to treatment than other staph infections. For example, if a person has a skin abscess caused by MRSA, the doctor is more likely to have to drain the pus from the abscess in order to clear the infection.

In addition to draining the area, doctors may prescribe antibiotics for some people with MRSA infections. In a few cases, MRSA can spread throughout the body and cause problems like blood and joint infections — although complications like these are very rare in healthy people.

People with infections also can help prevent other bacteria from becoming resistant to antibiotics in the future by taking the antibiotics that have been prescribed for them in the full amount until the prescription is finished (unless a doctor tells them 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 Should I Call the Doctor?

Call the doctor if:

Serious cases of MRSA are still rare. By taking these easy prevention steps, you can help keep it that way!

Reviewed by: Rupal Christine Gupta, MD
Date reviewed: June 2014

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Note: All information is for educational purposes only. For specific medical advice, diagnoses, and treatment, consult your doctor.
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