Methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus (MRSA) infections have made headlines recently as hospitals attempt to crack down on this dangerous and potentially deadly form of bacteria. Like other staph infections, MRSA can affect the respiratory tract and cause pneumonia-like symptoms. These bacteria are surprisingly prevalent: an estimated one-third of the population has MRSA on their skin, according to the Mayo Clinic. However, exposure to MRSA becomes problematic only if bacteria enter the body, usually through cuts or wounds.
The media sometimes call MRSA a “superbug” because it's resistant to not only penicillin, but also methicillin, which is commonly used to treat staph infections. MRSA infection occurs most frequently in hospitalized patients, such as those hooked up to IVs, post-surgical patients and cystic fibrosis patients. This makes MRSA especially dangerous because these patients' immune systems are already weakened. People who live in groups, such as an athletic team or nursing home residents, sometimes acquire "community-infected MRSA," or infection as a result of sharing close quarters.
MRSA that affects the respiratory system often manifests itself as a form of pneumonia, or inflammation of the lungs. Buildup of mucus from pneumonia can cause coughing. Treatment for pneumonia typically involves antibiotics, making respiratory symptoms of MRSA difficult to treat because the bacteria resist common antibiotics.
Respiratory MRSA often begins much like a cold, with fever, muscle aches and cough. It can then progress to more serious pneumonia symptoms, including chest pain and difficulty breathing. MRSA that infects a wound, rather than the respiratory system, may cause small red bumps, tender skin, or a boil-like bump that resembles a spider bite. Notify a doctor immediately if you suspect you may have MRSA. Because MRSA can further infect the lungs, seeking immediate treatment may prevent the onset of pneumonia.
Take the following steps to avoid MRSA both in and out of the hospital. Proper hygiene is a must: wash your hands regularly and keep wounds clean and covered. Avoid abusing antibiotics, as the body can build up a resistance to antibiotics and resist MRSA treatment. Ask your health-care providers to wash their hands before examining you.
A patient who contracts respiratory MRSA may be moved to an isolation room to prevent airborne spread to others. If doctors prescribe a course of antibiotics, it's imperative for patients not to abuse antibiotics and to take the full course of antibiotics prescribed. Failure to do so may result in the body creating antibiotic-resistant strains of MRSA. A patient with severe pneumonia may be hospitalized and receive intravenous antibiotics for 3 to 4 days.