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Outsmart This Scary Germ: Staphylococcus Aureus

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Anatomy of an Infection

Like other staph germs, CA-MRSA can slip into your body through a cut, crack, or abrasion and attack underlying layers of skin, muscle, and membranes, causing boils, pain, swelling, and abscesses. If not treated properly, it can spread through the blood and carry germs to the heart, brain, lungs, liver, and spleen. This can potentially lead to pneumonia, infections of the heart, stroke, and even organ failure.

CA-MRSA is aggressive. While its closest relative, MRSA, is a common cause of infections in hospitals, where it tends to strike patients whose immune systems are weak, "CA-MRSA can affect otherwise healthy people," says Neil Fishman, MD, an associate professor of medicine and infectious diseases at the University of Pennsylvania School of Medicine and chair of the antimicrobial resistance working group at the Infectious Diseases Society of America. The superbug produces toxic enzymes that attack the body's cells. It can spread within days -- usually forming pus-filled abscesses that allow it to cause deep infection of the skin and underlying tissues -- and CA-MRSA is resistant to a number of antibiotics.

Where the Bug Lurks

You can come into contact with the germ almost anyplace, but it spreads most easily in crowded places like gyms and locker rooms. You can pick it up from weight equipment, mats and, especially, shared items like towels, bars of soap, and razors. Shaving -- even with your own razor -- is a risk factor because it causes tiny abrasions that the germs can enter. "There have been outbreaks of CA-MRSA associated with body shaving. The bacteria like to hide on the legs and especially in areas with folds and crevices such as the underarms and groin," says Dr. Fishman. The bug can also be sexually transmitted, according to a new study.

What to Ask Your Doctor

Because CA-MRSA is such a new threat, some MDs still don't know what to look for. "I had several doctors misdiagnose me because I was young and otherwise healthy," says Jessica Leeb, a 25-year-old medical student at Emory University, who was told she had a herpes infection when CA-MRSA caused a lesion on her lip. A skin culture will identify the bug -- but you may need to ask for it. See your physician if you have a spot that's soft if you press on it, red, swollen and warm, which are signs of infection. "If you also develop a fever, go to the doctor -- or the ER -- immediately," says Dr. Blumberg.

How the Infection Is Treated

Once you're diagnosed with CA-MRSA, the physician will probably put you on antibiotics right away (drug effectiveness varies, but clindamycin, trimethoprim-sulfamethoxazole, and tetracycline are often prescribed). Make sure the doctor also drains any pus from the infection. "If you have an abscess, antibiotics alone aren't enough to fight it off," explains Dr. Blumberg. Finally, you'll also need to go through a stringent cleansing process called decolonization to wipe out any remaining traces of CA-MRSA. This means washing for three to five days with a surgical scrub and using an antibacterial nasal ointment (staph typically hides in the nose).

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