Staph infections are caused by strains of Staphylococcus bacteria, commonly found on the human body. Healthy individuals are often carriers, oblivious to the presence of these bacteria. These bacteria can potentially be harmful and cause infection once they come in contact with an open skin surface.
Once they penetrate the skin through an opening, lesion, or incision sites from surgery, these bacteria can cause infections of the skin and, in severe cases, affect other parts of the body.
Staph infections can range from minor skin infections such as boils, impetigo, and/or cellulitis to major health conditions such as toxic shock syndrome and septicemia.
What Does a Staph Infection Look Like?
Staph bacteria can cause swelling, redness, pus on the site of infection that may look like a pimple or boil.
Serious staph infections can manifest themselves in the form of fever, rash, sweats, and chills.
How is a Staph Infection Spread?
Staph bacteria live harmlessly almost anywhere on the skin, often in the nose, mouth, armpits, and buttocks.
They become infectious once they get into the skin. Staph infections can spread through:
- Bites, cuts, and bruises
- Close physical contact
- Sharing towels, clothes, or toothbrushes
- Droplet infection from a cough and sneeze (less common)
Is Staph Infection Dangerous?
Staph infections are usually minor and end up as skin infections that look like rashes, boils, and sores.
Rarely, staph bacteria can take a severe infectious form that can be fatal to your health. This can happen if the bacteria find their way into your bloodstream and from there to different parts of your body, such as the lungs, heart, joints, and bones.
What are the Signs and Symptoms of a Staph Infection?
Staph infections are mostly superficial, affecting only the skin, but in worst cases, internal body parts may be affected by a bacterial invasion.
When staph bacteria affect the skin and other soft tissues, they present themselves as:
- Minor painful red bumps – These include pimples and boils on the surface of the face, neck, armpits, thighs, groin area, and buttocks.
- Wound infection – This occurs at the site of an injury or a cut marked by redness and swelling.
- Impetigo – This is a contagious infection characterized by painful sores around the nose and mouth. It is most common in infants and young children.
- Cellulitis – This occurs when the staph bacteria permeate deep into the layers of the skin and cause an inflammation beneath the skin layer. Cellulitis patients experience fever, chills, and nausea accompanied by an inflamed skin.
- Staphylococcal scalded skin syndrome (SSSS) – This condition affects babies and children under the age of 5 and is marked by fever and an outbreak of rash and blisters that give a burnt appearance
Invasive staphylococcal infections – These are severe cases of bacterial infection that are less common but can be far-reaching if left unattended. When the staph bacteria invade the inner body parts, they can cause diseases such as pneumonia, urinary tract infections, and food poisoning.
Other cases of invasive staph infections that can be fatal to human health include:
- Septicemia – This is the entry of the staph bacteria into the bloodstream. This causes blood poisoning, spreading the reach of the bacteria to different parts of the body including the heart, lungs, and even surgical implants and devices. Symptoms include:
- Breathlessness or difficulty breathing
- Reduced urination
- Pale and cold skin
- Toxic shock syndrome – This is a rare form of severe sepsis when the bacteria release toxins in the blood. It is mostly associated with surgery, use of tampons, and skin injury. Symptoms include:
- High fever
- A dramatic drop in blood pressure (shock)
- Pain in the muscles and abdominal region
- Septic arthritis – This occurs when staph bacteria infect the joints. Major symptoms include:
- Swelling and pain in the joints
- Body temperature above normal
- Endocarditis – This is a disease caused by a staphylococcal infection in the heart valves. Symptoms develop gradually over some time:
- Chest pain
- Shortness of breath
- Unexplained weight loss
Who is at a Higher Risk of a Staph Infection?
Staph bacteria are omnipresent and induce contagious infections upon entry into the skin. These can affect anyone, but some people are prone to contracting staph infections. These include those with conditions wherein the skin is often exposed to infectious agents, such as:
- Nursing mothers
- People with a weak immune system
- People who require dialysis
- People with diabetics
- People having a respiratory illness such as cystic fibrosis or emphysema
- People with human immunodeficiency virus (HIV) infection or acquired immunodeficiency syndrome (AIDS)
- People with cancer
- People who have recently undergone surgery
- People who require medical tube assistance such as urinary catheters and feeding and breathing tubes
What Can Be the Possible Treatment Options?
Staph infections can be treated by a range of antibiotics depending upon the strain of the staph bacteria and their location in the body.
Staph bacterium has developed resistance to several antibiotics such as penicillin, methicillin, and vancomycin over the years.
Drug-resistant strains methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus (MRSA) and vancomycin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus (VRSA) are potential threats. Hence, it is essential to determine the presence of a resistant strain. Once the bacterial strain is identified, your doctor will choose an antibiotic that can work best on your infection.
Sometimes, pus drainage can help you get rid of the bacterial buildup.
In severe cases of infection where surgical implants, prosthetics, or devices get infected, it is best to have them surgically removed.
Certain domestic ingredients and herbs can also help treat staph infection. Home treatments focus on easing the symptoms, quick healing, and preventing further progression of the infection.
Listed below are home remedies that can give you some natural relief in some minor staph infections.
1. Heal with Tea Tree Oil
Tea tree oil is a traditional antimicrobial and anti-inflammatory remedy to fight skin infections. Topical application can relieve skin discomforts and treat staph infections on the skin.
A 2004 study published in the American Journal of Infection Control found tea tree oil to be a promising antimicrobial for the treatment of Staphylococcus aureus infections and wound infections.
- On a moistened cotton swab, pour 2–3 drops of tea tree essential oil. Dab it on the infected area. Leave it on for a few hours before washing it off.
- Alternatively, you can mix a few drops of tea tree oil in 1 teaspoon of aloe vera gel or raw honey. Apply this mixture on the infected areas and leave it on for a few hours before rinsing it off.
Follow either of the remedies once or twice daily until the results are satisfying.
2. Drink Turmeric Tea
The antioxidant, antibacterial, anti-inflammatory, and wound-healing properties of turmeric make it an excellent candidate to fight staph infections.
Besides speeding the recovery process, turmeric bolsters your immune system.
- Boil 1 teaspoon of turmeric powder in 4 cups of water and then allow it to simmer for 10 minutes. Strain and drink this turmeric tea two to three times a day
- Prepare a paste of turmeric powder in water and apply it on the affected skin a few times daily to relieve symptoms.
3. Pour Garlic Juice
Garlic contains a compound called allicin, which contributes to its antibiotic nature.
- Clean the affected area and smear some garlic juice on it. Cover it with a bandage. Remove the bandage after a few hours. Do this twice daily for a few days
- Either include garlic in your cooking or eat a few raw garlic cloves on an empty stomach daily.
- Just be careful – garlic can be irritating or toxic on the skin and cause a burn or a rash.
4. Apply Oregano Oil
Oregano oil works along the same lines as an antibiotic and can help treat staph infections.
In a 2007 study published in the Journal of Medical Microbiology, researchers found that oregano oil attenuated the growth of Staphylococcus aureus and Staphylococcus epidermidis strains grown on a biofilm.
- Dilute 8 to 10 drops of oregano oil in 2 tablespoons of olive oil or any other carrier oil. Apply it on the affected area and leave it on for a few hours before washing it off. Reapply several times a day. Just be careful – oregano oil can be irritating or toxic on the skin and can cause a burn or a rash.
- Mix 5 drops of oregano oil in 1 glass of water or fruit juice. Drink this juice twice daily for a week.
5. Inhibit Infection with Goldenseal
Goldenseal has been blessed with antibacterial and antiseptic properties that can potentially kill bacteria. Containing berberine, a compound that can suppress the growth of staph bacteria, goldenseal helps disinfect and heal wounds.
- Add 1 teaspoon of goldenseal root/leaves powder to 2 cups of hot water. Steep for 20 minutes, and then strain the tea in a cup.
- Add lemon or honey to taste.
- Drink this tea two to three times a day for a few weeks.
6. Treat Boils with Echinacea
Belonging to the family of dandelion and artichokes, echinacea has been used as an antibiotic in traditional medicine.
This herb contains antimicrobial, anti-inflammatory, and immune-stimulant properties that help ease the symptoms of and promote recovery from staph infections.
In a 2010 study published in Phytomedicine, researchers concluded that a standardized echinacea preparation could control symptoms associated with bacterial respiratory infections.
- Apply echinacea cream or ointment topically on boils, open wounds, and skin rashes a few times a day.
- Drink 1 to 2 cups of echinacea tea daily.
- Apply echinacea essential oil on your wounds.
7. Rub Some Coconut Oil
Coconut oil has antibacterial and anti-inflammatory properties that can provide relief from skin discomforts. It contains medium-chain fatty acids, including lauric acid, which helps fight bacteria.
- Rub some extra-virgin coconut oil gently on the affected skin so that the oil penetrates into the skin.
- Leave it on for a few hours, and then wash it off.
- Reapply several times a day until the infection is gone.
You can also take a few tablespoons of extra-virgin coconut oil internally.
8. Dress Your Wounds with Eucalyptus Oil
The antimicrobial and anti-inflammatory actions of eucalyptus oil are attributed to the presence of various bioactive compounds, including 1,8-cineole or eucalyptol.
Eucalyptus oil can combat Staphylococcus aureus infections and acts as a useful broad-spectrum drug against antibiotic-resistant disease.
According to another 2010 study published in Phytomedicine, eucalyptus oil has shown synergistic effects against antibiotic-susceptible and antibiotic-resistant pathogens.
- Dilute a few drops of eucalyptus oil in any carrier oil such as olive and almond oils. Apply this diluted oil directly on wounds, cuts, and skin infections and leave it on for a few hours before rinsing it off. Repeat this twice daily for a few days
9. Fight the Staph Bacteria with Apple Cider Vinegar
Apple cider vinegar is well known for its antibiotic and anti-inflammatory properties.
It helps fight the bacteria and promotes quick healing. Also, it boosts your immune system to fight and prevent further infection.
- Mix equal amounts of raw, unfiltered apple cider vinegar and clean water. Use the solution to clean the wound once or twice daily for a few days.
- Also, add 1 to 2 tablespoons of raw, unfiltered apple cider vinegar to 1 glass of warm water and drink it two times daily. You can also add a little raw honey to it.
10. Apply Manuka Honey
Manuka honey is obtained when bees pollinate the manuka bush in New Zealand. Aside from the usual sugar, phytochemicals, and hydrogen peroxide, manuka honey also contains dihydroxyacetone, which produces an antibacterial chemical.
This is the reason behind the potent antimicrobial activities of manuka honey against staph infections, even in the case of methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus. It sterilizes the wound, speeds up healing, and mitigates the infection.
- Apply some manuka honey on the affected area.
- Allow it to sit for a few hours before washing it off.
- Repeat a few times a day until you are satisfied with the results.
How to Prevent a Staph Infection?
You cannot avoid contacting staph bacteria, but taking specific steps can reduce your risk of developing an infection. Because the mode of transmission of staph bacteria is via the skin, mouth, nose, or physical touch, certain preventive measures can help you keep a check on these routes of bacterial invasion.
- Cleanliness is the key to avoid contracting germs that are ubiquitously present in your environment. Restrict your visit to places that are high on microbial load. If possible, avoid going to such places.
- Wash your hands frequently.
- Ensure proper cleaning and cooking of food to rule out the possibility of staph-induced food poisoning.
- Keep your cuts and injuries clean. Treat your wounds immediately using antibacterial soap and water. Keep them covered them with a bandage.
- Avoid sharing personal items such as clothing, towels, bedsheets, and toothbrushes.
- Ensure you clean yourself after every session of games, gym, or sports.
- Ensure that you change your tampons frequently to prevent any bacterial growth.
- Clean your bathrooms, countertops, doorknobs, sinks, toilets, and kitchen counters daily with a disinfectant.
- Bleach soaks are helpful for those prone to staph infections.
In case of an existent staph infection:
- Wash your laundry in hot water and dry them under sunlight.
- Avoid poking the affected skin.
- Wear disposable gloves to touch clothes and bedding soiled with discharges from a staph infection.
- Use hot water compress to ripen the boils.
- If you have had recent surgery, take proper care of the incision site.
When to See a Doctor?
Consult your doctor if you notice the following symptoms:
- An area of skin that is red, painful, and irritated
- Blisters filled with pus
- An infection that is spreading
- A skin infection that is spreading within family members
- Skin infection lasting more than a week
Visit your doctor if at least 2 members of the family have been diagnosed with staph infections at the same time.
Staph bacteria can present themselves either as minor skin infections or invasive infections. Superficial infections include boils, rashes, and cellulitis.
What can make matters worse is the entry of the bacteria into your bloodstream. This can lead to complications including endocarditis, sepsis, and septic arthritis, which can be fatal to your health. Thus, it is advised to treat such infections immediately to avoid any such repercussions.
Usually, the line of treatment is antibiotics prescribed by a doctor. While minor infections can be dealt with at home with some natural remedies like those listed above, care should be taken to seek medical attention for an infection that lasts more than 7 days.
Expert Answers (Q&A)
Answered by Dr. Anne Truitt, MD (Dermatologist)
Which bacteria cause staph infection?
Staphylococcus is a genus of Gram-positive bacteria with many subsets. Two common subsets found naturally on the body are Staphylococcus aureus and Staphylococcus epidermidis. Normal skin flora is present to help prevent skin infections by providing competition for harmful bacteria and also to produce sebum (free fatty acids) which are toxic to many bacteria.
It is estimated that half of the human population is colonized with S aureus. Most healthy patients will not be infected by Staphylococcus (aureus or epidermidis) unless the bacteria is allowed to enter the bloodstream or internal tissues. S aureus can cause many other infections of the bone, heart, urinary tract, and systemic toxic shock through the release of toxins.
How long does it take to recover from a staph infection?
The recovery time from a staph infection is dependent on many factors: the health of the person, any other medical conditions (immunosuppression), location of the infection (skin vs. internal), type of staph (common vs. Methicillin-resistant S aureus (MRSA)), and method of transmission (community vs. hospital-acquired).
For less complicated skin infections, the normal treatment regimen is often a penicillin-based antibiotic (doxycycline for penicillin allergies) for about 7-10 days. For uncomplicated skin or nares infections, topical mupirocin can be used.
Can rubbing alcohol kill staph bacteria?
Laboratory studies with rubbing alcohol with lower concentrations of alcohol (62%) have been shown to inhibit staph (MRSA) but not kill it. The higher concentrations (>90%) were noted to kill the staph colonies, but this would not be recommended for treatment on skin. These products could be used as a hand sanitizer and on fomites (objects or materials which are likely to carry infection) where the transmission can occur (cellphones, doorknobs, gym equipment).
What happens if a staph infection is left untreated?
Small uncomplicated cases can resolve spontaneously simply by keeping the area clean; however, most cases are treated with either a topical or oral antibiotic. The degree of severity of an untreated staphylococcal infection depends upon the degree of severity of the infection.
Simple impetigo in children can spontaneously resolve although most of them are treated with topical antibiotics so as not to spread (to the patient or siblings). More complicated cases of folliculitis (small pustules around a hair follicle), abscesses (collection of pus walled-off from surrounding tissue), and furuncles/carbuncles (abscesses associated with hair follicles), should be treated with incision and drainage or antibiotics, or both, as the infection can progress to a much more complicated problem with deep seated cellulitis or internal spread which could be fatal.
MRSA is a more complicated S aureus bacteria that can only be treated with a selected group of antibiotics. MRSA can be both community-acquired and hospital-acquired; and if left untreated, MRSA infection can progress to a much more complicated infection and could ultimately be fatal.
For how long are the staph bacteria contagious?
“Contagious” is often debated since several people are already colonized with S aureus. However, untreated infections are contagious with open lesions. Treated infections are usually not contagious after about 48 hours of antibiotics. More complicated infections (MRSA) can be considered contagious for a longer period of time often until the infection has resolved.
Does staph infection spread through air?
No, it spreads through direct skin-to-skin contact and through fomites.
Is staph infection an STD?
No. Although Staphylococcus can spread through direct contact, it is not considered a traditional “sexually-transmitted disease.” STDs are bacteria, viruses, parasites, and yeast that are passed through the act of sexual intercourse. Examples are; chlamydia, HIV, and genital herpes.
Can a staph infection recur?
Yes. If an infection is not properly treated or there is repeated exposure with exposed skin, then it can recur. If a patient is immunosuppressed or has an underlying medical condition (ie. Atopic dermatitis aka eczema), infections are prone to recur.
Please provide some tips to our readers to safeguard themselves against staph infection.
- Make sure to bathe regularly and wash hands frequently.
- Use hand sanitizer in frequently trafficked areas (ie, grocery stores, public transportation, gym/gym equipment).
- Make sure to thoroughly clean often used sporting equipment. Most disinfectants will list on the label which bacteria it will destroy.
- Do not share private items such as cell phones, makeup, towels, combs, razors.
About Dr. Anne Truitt, MD: Dr. Truitt is a Board Certified Specialist in Dermatology and has special expertise in the diagnosis and treatment of skin cancers to include melanoma, non-melanoma skin cancer, and other types of skin growths.
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