"Staph" (pronounced staff) is short for Staphylococcus. Staph is a germ (bacteria) that can cause infections in any part of the body, but most are skin infections. Staph can infect openings in the skin, like scratches, pimples, or skin cysts. Anyone can get a staph infection.
Hospital patients can get staph infections of the skin:
Once the staph germ enters the body, it can spread to bones, joints, and the blood. It can also spread to or any organ, such as the lungs, heart, or brain.
Staph can also spread easily from one person to another.
Staph germs are mostly spread by skin-to-skin contact (touching). A doctor, nurse, other health care provider, or even visitors may have staph germs on their body and then spread them to a patient. This can happen when:
Also, a patient may have a staph infection before coming to the hospital. This can occur without the patient even being aware of it.
In a few cases, patients can get staph infections by touching clothing, sinks, or other objects that have staph germs on them.
One type of staph germ, called methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus (MRSA), is harder to treat. This is because MRSA is not killed by medicines used to treat ordinary staph germs.
Many healthy people normally have staph on their skin. Most of the time, it does not cause an infection or symptoms. This is called being colonized with staph. These persons are known as carriers. They can spread staph to others. Some people colonized with staph develop an actual staph infection that makes them sick.
Common risk factors for developing a serious staph infection are:
Anytime an area of your skin appears red, swollen, or crusty, a staph infection may be the cause. The only way to know for sure is to have a test called a skin culture. To do the culture, your doctor may use a cotton swab to collect a sample from an open a wound, skin rash, or skin sore. A sample may also be taken from a wound, blood, or sputum (spit). The sample is sent to the lab for testing.
The best way to prevent the spread of staph is for everyone to keep their hands clean. It is important to wash your hands thoroughly.
Alcohol-based gels may also be used if your hands are not visibly dirty.
Ask visitors to wash their hands before they come into your hospital room. They should also wash their hands when they leave your room.
Health care workers and other hospital staff can prevent staph infection by:
Many hospitals encourage patients to ask their health care providers if they have washed their hands. As a patient, you have the right to ask.
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Fishman N, Calfee DP. Prevention and control of health care-associated infections. In: Goldman L, Schafer AI, eds. Goldman's Cecil Medicine. 24th ed. Philadelphia, PA: Saunders Elsevier Saunders; 2011:chap 290.
Rupp ME, Fey PD. Staphylococcus epidermidis and other coagulase-negative Staphylococci. In: Mandell GL, Bennett JE, Dolin R, eds. Principles and Practice of Infectious Diseases. 7th ed. Philadelphia, PA: Elsevier Churchill-Livingstone; 2009:chap 196.
Updated by: Jatin M. Vyas, MD, PhD, Assistant Professor in Medicine, Harvard Medical School; Assistant in Medicine, Division of Infectious Disease, Department of Medicine, Massachusetts General Hospital. Also reviewed by David Zieve, MD, MHA, Isla Ogilvie, PhD, and the A.D.A.M. Editorial team.
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