MRSA is a type of bacteria (germ) that's resistant to a number of widely used antibiotics. This means MRSA infections can be more difficult to treat than other infections. MRSA is a common cause of skin, soft tissue, and bone infections. Some of these infections can be life-threatening.
Symptoms of MRSA infection
The full name of MRSA is methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus.
Staphylococcus aureus (also known as staph) is a common type of bacteria. It's often carried on the skin, in the gut, and inside the nostrils and throat.
MRSA is a strain of staph that is resistant to many commonly prescribed antibiotics. This makes an infection more difficult to treat. Most MRSA infection is picked up through contact with someone with MRSA in a healthcare setting.
The symptoms of an MRSA infection will depend on what part of the body is infected.
Skin and soft tissue MRSA infections
If MRSA infects the skin, it can result in a wound infection, boil or abscess.
If it infects the deeper layers of skin, it's known as cellulitis.
Typical symptoms are:
- a discharge of pus
Some people have additional symptoms, such as a:
- high temperature (fever)
- general feeling of being unwell
These infections can also be caused by bacteria other than MRSA, so having the symptoms above doesn't necessarily mean you have MRSA.
Invasive MRSA infections
If the MRSA bacteria penetrate deeper inside your body or into your blood, they can cause a more serious, invasive infection (which can spread quickly). This can occur, for example, following a surgical procedure, or treatment in hospital.
Signs of an invasive infection include:
- a high temperature of 38C (100.4F) or above
- generally feeling unwell
- muscle aches and pains
- pain, swelling and tenderness in the affected body part
Examples of invasive MRSA infections include:
- blood poisoning (sepsis) – which could lead to septic shock, where your blood pressure drops to a dangerously low level
- urinary tract infection (UTI) – infection of the tubes through which urine passes
- endocarditis – infection of the heart valves
- pneumonia – a lung infection
- septic bursitis – inflammation of a fluid-filled sac that forms under the skin (usually over a joint)
- septic arthritis – a joint infection
- osteomyelitis – a bone infection
How you can get MRSA
MRSA bacteria are usually spread through skin-to-skin contact. This can be contact with someone who has an MRSA infection or has the bacteria living on their skin.
In Northern Ireland, most MRSA infections that happen outside hospital occur in people who have had direct or indirect contact with hospitals, residential or nursing homes, and other healthcare facilities.
These strains of healthcare-associated MRSA may be carried without any symptoms for months by someone who has recently been in a healthcare facility.
The bacteria can also be spread through contact with contaminated objects such as:
- door handles
People staying in hospital are most at risk of becoming infected with MRSA because:
- they're surrounded by many people, which means the bacteria can spread more easily
- they often have an entry point for the bacteria to get into their body, such as a surgical wound or urinary catheter
- they may have serious or complex health problems, which makes them more vulnerable to infection
It's also possible to become infected with MRSA outside of hospital. This is much less common.
In recent years, rates of MRSA have fallen. This is because of increased awareness of the infection by both medical staff and the public.
However, MRSA can still be a risk in healthcare facilities. Healthcare staff and the public should always follow infection control advice, to prevent MRSA and other infections.
Some people who need to be admitted to hospital will have MRSA screening beforehand (see below). There are also some things you can do yourself to reduce your risk of becoming infected. These include:
- washing your hands often – especially after using the toilet, and before and after eating
- following any advice you're given about wound care and devices that could lead to infection (such as urinary catheters)
If you're visiting someone in hospital, you can reduce the chance of spreading MRSA by cleaning your hands before and after entering the ward.
You should also use hand wipes or hand gel before touching the person you're visiting.
You can also help reduce the risk of infection by reporting any unclean toilet or bathroom facilities to staff – don't be afraid to talk to staff if you're concerned about hygiene.
Screening for MRSA
Some patients admitted to hospital for planned or emergency care are screened to see if they carry MRSA on their skin.
This helps to reduce the chance of patients developing an MRSA infection or passing an infection on to other patients.
During the screening process, a cotton bud (swab) will be run over your skin so it can be checked for MRSA bacteria. If MRSA bacteria are found, your doctor will talk to you about your treatment.
This may include treatment with antibacterial body wash or shampoo and nasal cream to remove the bacteria from your skin before you're admitted.
Treating MRSA infections
MRSA infections can be more difficult to treat than other bacterial infections. But they're still treatable because the MRSA bacteria aren't resistant to all antibiotics.
Minor skin infections may not always require any treatment, other than draining away any pus from the site of the infection.
In most other cases, you’ll usually be treated with antibiotics and your doctor will talk to you about the most appropriate antibiotics.
More useful links
- How to use your health services
- MRSA leaflet – Public Health Agency website
- Hand hygiene leaflet – Public Health Agency website
The information on this page has been adapted from original content from the NHS website.
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