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Outsmart This Scary Germ: Staphylococcus Aureus

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A deadly disease is stalking women, infecting nearly 60 percent of people who go to the ER for skin or soft-tissue infections. Here's what you need to know to protect yourself from a staph infection.

Staph Infection

When 42-year-old Peg McQueary cut her ankle shaving two years ago, she didn't think anything of it. But about a week later, the mother of two in Sacramento, California, noticed that the area around the nick had turned red. She also felt nauseous and achy and had a slight fever. "I thought I had a flu," she says. Within two days, however, her entire leg began to swell from ankle to hip. By the time she was finally able to get an appointment to see her doctor a day and a half later, her leg had ballooned to twice its normal size. "My husband and I were completely freaked out," she says. "We were wondering, 'What is this?'"

McQueary went to her doctor, who took a look and told her to go immediately to the ER. Her husband rushed her to the hospital, where she spent the next six days receiving a morphine drip and hooked up to an IV that pumped vancomycin, a strong antibiotic often used as a last resort, directly into an artery of her heart. Two days after McQueary was admitted, a skin culture showed that she was infected with a potentially deadly strain of staph bacteria called community-associated methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus (CA-MRSA). She was in a fight for her life as the staph invaded her blood, causing uncontrollable shaking, a fever of 105 degrees, and delirium. "I didn't know where I was or what was happening," she says. "On a scale of 1 to 10, the pain was a definite 10," she says.

After a week, McQueary's condition stabilized. She recovered from the infection at home but needed daily antibiotic infusions for more than a year and a half because the germ became resistant to one drug after another. It was finally brought under control, but tests show that CA-MRSA is still in her body. "It has turned my life upside down," she says.

Cases like McQueary's are on the rise. A few years ago, hardly anyone had even heard of CA-MRSA. Today, it has become an epidemic, infecting nearly 60 percent of people who go to the ER for skin or soft-tissue infections, according to studies published in the New England Journal of Medicine. "We've seen a big change," says Henry Blumberg, MD, a professor of medicine in the division of infectious diseases at Emory University School of Medicine. "While skin and soft tissue infections have always been common, now CA-MRSA has become the predominant cause of them." The good news is that the crucial preventive measures are basic and easy. The best way to protect yourself is to know where the germ lurks, what to ask your doctor, and who is most at risk. On these pages, you'll get that information -- plus everything else you need to stay safe.

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