Is a staph infection an emergency? Not usually. Most infections are easily treated at home by a primary care physician or other healthcare professional. However, there are times when a staph infection becomes severe enough that the individual requires emergency treatment and possibly hospitalization.
What is a staph infection, and what does it look like? More importantly, when is it an emergency?
Staph Infection 101
The word staph is short for Staphylococcus (staf-i-low-kah-kus), a species of bacteria that is most commonly associated with contagious bacterial infections. Other bacteria can cause infection, but Staphylococcus is typically found throughout the environment, on the skin, and in human waste. In small numbers, it doesn’t create a problem.
As long as the bacteria has no way to enter the body, there is no infection.
However, if you have an opening in the skin like irritation or a wound, staph can enter the body and wage war. Staph infections can start on the skin, in the nose or mouth, or in the anus or genitals. If the body’s defenses cannot fight it off and the bacteria multiply, it can create a serious infection that could spread to the bloodstream, called septicemia.
Staph bacteria also has another trick up its non-existent sleeve. It can release a toxin that causes food poisoning and toxic shock syndrome.
Warm, humid environments can contribute to the spread of Staphylococcus. Excessive sweating increases the chance of infection.
What Causes Staph Infections?
There are many types of Staphylococci, but the primary cause of most staff infections is Staphylococcus aureus (S. aureus). Most other staph bacteria aren’t as aggressive and don’t often cause infection unless an individual is highly immune suppressed.
More than three million people suffer staph infections in the US annually.
S. aureus can live in and on the body for quite a while without causing any problems. If it comes into contact with a wound or other opening in the skin, it can cause infection. Staph causes boils, food poisoning, cellulitis, and the aforementioned toxic shock syndrome.
Staph is passed easily through skin-to-skin contact (direct contact) and by touching objects or materials with bacteria on them. A staph infection is passed when people share personal items like bed sheets, towels, clothing, make-up, or razors. Staph can also be spread from one part of the body to another through dirty hands or fingernails.
Emergency medicine treats more than just trauma to the body. Read more about our emergency services here.
MRSA – A Special Case
You may have heard of superbugs or bacterial infections that are hard to treat. Some S. aureus bacteria have become resistant to antibiotics. MRSA stands for methicillin-resistant staph aureus. Methicillin is commonly used to treat staph infections, but over time, some strains have become resistant to it, meaning it no longer kills the bacteria or keeps it from spreading. Such staph infections have become resistant to multiple antibiotics.
Antibiotic-resistant bacteria are a problem because treatment becomes complex, and more potent or different antibiotics must be used to treat it. If nothing slows it down, MRSA can cause severe health problems, spreading more quickly to the bloodstream, organs, heart lining, and joints.
Symptoms and Types of Staph Infections
Staph infections vary from mild skin infections to life-threatening illnesses. The symptoms depend on the severity of the infection. A mild infection may cause some redness and soreness at the infection site. In contrast, a severe infection can cause organ failure and require hospitalization.
Here are some common health issues caused by staph infections.
Have you ever noticed a pimple where a hair attaches to your skin? That’s called folliculitis, or an infection of the hair follicle, and it’s often caused by staph. It may have a small red area around it and is often found on irritated skin due to shaving.
A boil, called a furuncle (fyoor-unkle), is a red, painful, swollen lump on or in the skin. When under the skin, it’s called an abscess.
Boils often start as folliculitis that worsens. The lump becomes pus-filled and becomes more prominent and painful until it ruptures (pops) and drains. Boils are usually found on the face, neck, buttocks, armpits, inner thighs, or anywhere hair follicles become irritated.
A cluster of multiple boils is called a carbuncle. Sometimes boils and carbuncles can cause fever or a general feeling of illness.
Impetigo is a superficial infection of the skin commonly seen in children. You see it on the hand, feet, and face, where it begins as a small blister or pimple and develops a honey-colored crust.
Cellulitis is a small area of redness, tenderness, warmth, and swelling on the skin, usually the legs. The infection moves into the deeper skin layers and can create sores or ulcers that discharge pus. Sufferers may run fevers and feel ill.
Staphylococcal Scalded Skin Syndrome
This issue is seen mainly in children under five and infants, and it’s caused by the staph toxin we discussed. It starts with a minor staph infection, but the toxin affects the skin all over the body. You might see fever, rash, or blisters; when the blisters break, the top layer of the skin can peel. It looks like a burn and should be treated like one in the hospital.
Most children make a full recovery with prompt and appropriate treatment.
Food Poisoning and Toxic Shock Syndrome
Both food poisoning and toxic shock syndrome are also caused by staph toxin.
You can recognize food poisoning by the typical symptoms of nausea, vomiting, diarrhea, low blood pressure, and diarrhea. Toxic shock syndrome shares many of the same symptoms but can also include abdominal pain, muscle aches, and a rash that looks like a sunburn.
Food poisoning is caused, of course, by food that has staph growing in it because it was improperly prepared or stored. Toxic shock syndrome is mainly related to tampon use but can be seen under other conditions.
Should you visit an emergency room or urgent care facility? What is the difference? Read more here.
When to Seek Emergency Services for a Staph Infection
You should visit the emergency room if the infection involves a high fever, continues to spread, or causes symptoms that create dehydration, like diarrhea and vomiting. If you suspect the bacteria have entered the bloodstream, the infected individual requires emergency treatment with IV antibiotics and will likely be admitted to the hospital. People with compromised immune systems should take extra care with any wound, rash, irritation, or pain.
A mild staph infection can be diagnosed in a doctor’s office. You may receive a prescription for oral antibiotics, or the doctor may ask you to treat the wound with topical antibiotic ointment, either over the counter or prescription.
Keep the wound clean, cover it with sterile gauze or a bandage, clean the area, and change the covering daily. If it doesn’t improve, call your physician. If you begin to run a high fever or show other symptoms of illness, visit your local emergency room for diagnosis and treatment.
Come to Family First ER
Family First ER has an experienced medical staff who can provide high-quality care for a staph infection or any other illness. Contact our facility for guidance or simply come and see us. We’ll get you back on your feet in no time.