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What is MRSA?


What is MRSA?

MRSA is an infection caused by a group of bacteria called staphylococcus aureus. There are many different types of staphylococcus aureus. These bacteria are usually found on the skin and are often responsible for pimples and boils.

MRSA is a particular type (strain) of staphylococcus aureus that does not respond (is resistant) to many antibiotics. These antibiotics include a type of penicillin called methicillin. MRSA stands for methicillin resistant staphylococcus aureus.

MRSA was first seen in several countries in the 1960s. With increasing use of antibiotics, new strains of MRSA have developed over the past 20 years. These new resistant strains develop because some bacteria may not be destroyed by a course of antibiotics. They have particular characteristics that protect them from the antibiotic. The bacteria then grow and divide in the body to produce a strain that is resistant to antibiotics. If antibiotics are used too often and inappropriately, it becomes more likely that bacteria will adapt to them and become resistant. To try and reduce this resistance the Department of Health have produced guidance to GPs and the public to promote more careful use of antibiotics. Hospitals have their own antibiotic policies, which follow national guidance.


What’s the difference between carrying MRSA and having an infection?

About a third of people carry MRSA on their skin or in their nose without knowing it. They are carriers of MRSA. The bacteria are there but don’t cause any harm. Most people who carry MRSA in this way don’t go on to develop an infection.

You get an MRSA infection when the bacteria get into your body tissues or bloodstream and multiply. They can get in through a break in the skin, such as a wound or drip site, or by travelling up a tube into the bladder (a catheter).

MRSA infections mostly affect people who

  • Are in hospital for long periods
  • Have had surgery
  • Are seriously ill in intensive care
  • Have a weak immune system and are at risk from infection

How does MRSA spread?

Because staphylococcus aureus bacteria live on the skin they are easily spread by direct contact, often from people’s hands. MRSA is also spread on bedding, towels, clothing and equipment. This is why strict hygiene measures in hospital are so important.


What are the symptoms of MRSA?

Symptoms of MRSA depend on the part of the body that is infected and can include

  • Red, swollen or tender skin
  • Wounds that are slow to heal or show signs of infection
  • Boils or abscesses (pus filled areas)
  • Fever, tiredness, and headache in more severe infections

There is more about the symptoms of infections in our section on cancer and fever.


How is MRSA diagnosed?

You need to have tests or swabs taken to diagnose MRSA. This can be a blood or urine sample, or a swab from a wound or drip site. The samples are sent to the lab to find out what the infection is and which antibiotics it is sensitive to.

Even if you don’t have an MRSA infection you have tests to see if you carry MRSA. This is called screening for MRSA and may be done if you are going in to hospital. You may have a series of swabs taken from your nose, skin, wounds or drip sites.


What is the treatment for MRSA?

MRSA infections are still often treatable with antibiotics. But your doctor will need to prescribe particular types because many standard antibiotics don’t work. You usually have these antibiotics through a vein in your arm (intravenously). Vancomycin and teicoplanin are antibiotics commonly used for MRSA.

If you carry MRSA, you may need treatment to clear the bug from your body. This reduces your risk of getting an MRSA infection in future and helps limit its spread to other people. MRSA can sometimes be difficult to get rid of completely. You may have antibiotic cream for your nose, and special soaps, powders and shampoo for the rest of your body.


Can spread of MRSA be prevented?

MRSA is mostly an infection that people get in hospital. The number of reported MRSA infections has increased a lot in recent years. The reason for the rise is due to

  • New strains of MRSA being more powerful
  • An increasing number of very sick people in hospital
  • Healthcare treatment becoming more complex – central lines and catheters are now used more widely
  • Patients moving wards and between hospitals more often
  • High workloads, which can make it more difficult for staff to stick to regular hand washing routines

But hospital staff are working hard to control the spread of MRSA by

  • Making sure they wash their hands and use alcohol hand gel between patients
  • Screening patients for MRSA when they are admitted to hospital
  • Using antibiotics carefully in line with guidelines
  • Improving ward cleaning and inspection
  • Looking after people with MRSA in single rooms until their infection has cleared
  • Having a policy on how to manage MRSA

If you’re in hospital and are worried about getting MRSA there are some measures you can take yourself

  • Keep your hands and body as clean as possible
  • Don’t share soap or towels
  • Always wash your hands after using the toilet and before meals
  • Use wipes after using a bedpan or commode
  • Make sure your bed area and bedding are cleaned regularly - don’t be afraid to report poor cleaning to the nurses
  • Tell the ward sister if you see any staff forget to wash their hands!
  • Take antibiotics as instructed and always finish the course
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Updated: 8 April 2013