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What Is a Staph Infection?

Staph infections are caused by staphylococcus bacteria which are types of germs commonly found on the skin or in the nose. Usually, these bacteria cause no problems or result in relatively minor skin infections. But staph infections can turn deadly if the bacteria invade deeper into your body, entering your bloodstream, joints, bones, lungs or heart. A growing number of otherwise healthy people are developing life-threatening staph infections. Treatment usually involves antibiotics and drainage of the infected area. However, some staph infections no longer respond to common antibiotics. Here is what you need to know about staph infection.

Who is at risk for staph infections?

Anyone can develop a staph infection. However, certain groups of people are at greater risk, including newborn infants, breastfeeding women, and people with chronic conditions such as diabetes, cancer, and lung disease. Injecting drug users, those with skin injuries or disorders, intravenous catheters, surgical incisions, and those with a weakened immune system due either to disease or a result of immune suppressing medications all have an increased risk of developing staph infections.

How staph infections are spread

The bacteria that cause staph infections live harmlessly on many people's skin. They are most commonly found in the nose and armpits and on the buttocks. They usually only cause an infection if they get into the skin through a bite or cut. Staph bacteria can spread to others through:

  • close skin contact
  • sharing things like towels or toothbrushes
  • droplets in coughs and sneezes


  • Most staph infections that are visible usually have a reddish, swollen, itchy, and tender area at the site of infection.
  • Often the site has some crusty covering with drainage.
  • Sites of infection can be small like a pimple on someone's face, a boil on an extremity, or large like a carbuncle.
  • Cellulitis often shows redness and swelling of the involved area without pus, but impetigo shows a crusty weeping rash with an occasional blister.
  • Infected catheters and other implanted devices usually show redness, pus, and tenderness at the skin entry site. Deep abscesses, pneumonia, osteomyelitis, and most other internal infections are only seen by X-ray and other imaging techniques or are not visible at all although nausea, vomiting, diarrhea and abdominal pain, chills, and fever may be present.


Many people carry staph bacteria and never develop staph infections. However, if you develop a staph infection, there's a good chance that it's from bacteria you've been carrying around for some time. These bacteria can also be transmitted from person to person. Because staph bacteria are so hardy, they can live on inanimate objects such as towels long enough to transfer to the next person who touches them.

Staph bacteria are able to survive:

  • Drying
  • Extremes of temperature
  • Stomach acid

What is the treatment for staph infections?

Minor skin infections are usually treated with an antibiotic ointment such as a nonprescription triple-antibiotic mixture. In some cases, oral antibiotics may be given for skin infections. Moreover, if abscesses are present, they are surgically drained. More serious and life-threatening infections are treated with intravenous antibiotics and supportive medical care in the hospital.

Doctors use several different types of antibiotics have been used to treat staph infections. The choice of antibiotic depends on the type and severity of the infection as well as drug-resistance patterns of the particular bacterial type. Some of the antibiotics that have been used to treat staph infections are cefazolin, cefuroxime, cephalexin, nafcillin (Nallpen), oxacillin (Bactocill), dicloxacillin, vancomycin, clindamycin (Cleocin), rifampin, and telavancin (Vibativ).

If you suspect you have a staph infection on your skin, always make sure to keep the area clean and covered until you see your doctor so that you don't spread the bacteria. And, until you know whether or not you have staph, don't prepare food.