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About Staph Infections
Staph infections are caused by the bacteria Staphylococcus aureus, which many healthy people carry on their skin and in their noses without getting sick.
But when skin is punctured or broken, staph bacteria can enter the wound and cause infections, which can lead to other health problems.
You can help prevent staph infections in your family by encouraging regular hand washing and daily bathing, and by keeping areas that have been cut clean or covered.
How Staph Infections Spread
Staph bacteria can spread through contaminated surfaces and from person to person. Kids can carry staph bacteria from one area of their body to another — or pass it to other people — via dirty hands or fingernails. So good hand washing is vital to preventing staph infections.
It's also important to encourage kids to keep their skin clean with a daily bath or shower. If your child has a skin condition such as eczema that makes frequent bathing difficult, ask your doctor for advice.
Keep areas of skin that have been injured — such as cuts, scrapes, and rashes caused by allergic reactions or poison ivy — clean and covered, and follow any directions given by your doctor.
Complications of Staph Infections
Folliculitis and Boils
Folliculitis is an infection of hair follicles, tiny pockets under the skin where hair shafts (strands) grow. In folliculitis, tiny white-headed pimples appear at the base of hair shafts, sometimes with a small red area around each pimple. This infection often occurs in areas where there's been friction or irritation, such as with shaving.
Folliculitis often clears up on its own with good skin hygiene. Sometimes, it can progress to become a furuncle, or a boil. With a boil, the staph infection spreads deeper and wider, often affecting the skin's subcutaneous tissue (deeper tissue under the skin) and the oil-producing glands, which are called sebaceous glands.
In the first stage, which parents and kids often miss, the area of skin either begins to itch or becomes mildly painful. Next, the skin turns red and begins to swell over the infected area. Finally, the skin above the infection becomes very tender and a whitish "head" may appear. The head may break, and the boil may begin to drain pus, blood, or an amber-colored liquid. Boils can occur anywhere on the skin, especially under the arms or on the groin or buttocks in kids.
To help relieve pain from a boil, try warm-water soaks, a heating pad, or a hot-water bottle applied to the skin for about 20 minutes, three or four times a day. Make sure that the washcloths used for the soaks are washed after each use. Boils are occasionally treated with oral antibiotics and in some cases need to be surgically drained.
Impetigo can affect skin anywhere on the body but commonly occurs around the nose and mouth. It usually affects preschoolers and school-age kids, especially in the summer months.
Impetigo caused by staph bacteria is characterized by large blisters containing fluid that is first clear, then cloudy. The blisters may burst, ooze fluid, and develop a honey-colored crust. Impetigo may itch and can be spread by scratching.
Doctors usually prescribe a topical ointment to treat it and may, depending on the severity, add oral antibiotics.
You may have heard about methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus (MRSA), a type of staph bacteria with a resistance to the antibiotics usually used to treat staph infections. Although MRSA infections can be harder to treat, in most cases they heal with proper care.
Most MRSA infections involve the skin, but sometimes MRSA can cause more serious problems, such as bone infections or pneumonia. MRSA pneumonia is rare, but is more of a risk for kids already sick with the flu.
Scalded Skin Syndrome
Scalded skin syndrome (SSS) most often affects newborns and kids under age 5. The illness usually starts with a localized staph skin infection, but the staph bacteria manufacture a toxin that affects skin all over the body. The child has a fever, rash, and sometimes blisters. As blisters burst and the rash passes, the top layer of skin is dislodged and the skin surface becomes red and raw, like a burn.
SSS is a serious illness that needs to be treated and monitored in a hospital. It affects the body in the same way as serious burns. After treatment, most kids make a full recovery.
Treating Staph Infections
Most localized staph skin infections can be treated by washing the skin with an antibacterial cleanser, warm soaks, applying an antibiotic ointment prescribed by a doctor, and covering the skin with a clean dressing. To keep the infection from spreading, use a towel only once when you soak or clean an area of infected skin, then wash it.
Your doctor may prescribe an oral antibiotic for your child's staph skin infection. If so, give the antibiotic on schedule for as many days as the doctor directs. More serious staph infections may require hospitalization.
Call the doctor whenever your child has an area of red, irritated, or painful skin, especially if you see whitish pus-filled areas or your child has a fever or feels sick. Also, call the doctor if skin infections seem to be passing from one family member to another or if two or more family members have skin infections simultaneously.
Reviewed by: Stephen C. Eppes, MD
Date reviewed: April 2011