What Is a Staph Infection?

Staph is the shortened name for Staphylococcus (staf-uh-low-KAH-kus), a type of bacteria. These bacteria live harmlessly on many skin surfaces, especially around the nose, mouth, genitals, and anus. But if the skin is punctured or broken, staph bacteria can enter the wound and cause an infection.

Staphylococcus aureus cause most staph skin infections, and also can release toxins (poisons) that lead to illnesses like food poisoning or toxic shock syndrome.

What Are the Signs & Symptoms of a Staph Skin Infection?

Staph skin infections show up in lots of different ways. Conditions often caused by S. aureus include:

  • Folliculitis (fuh-lih-kyoo-LY-tus): This is an infection of the hair follicles, the tiny pockets under the skin where hair shafts (strands) grow. In folliculitis, tiny white-headed pimples appear at the base of hair shafts, sometimes with a small red area around each pimple. This happens often where people shave or have irritated skin from rubbing against clothing.
  • A furuncle (fyoor-UNK-ul), commonly known as a boil: These swollen, red, painful lumps in the skin usually are due to an infected hair follicle. The lump fills with pus, growing larger and more painful until it ruptures and drains. Furuncles often begin as folliculitis and then worsen. They most often appear on the face, neck, buttocks, armpits, and inner thighs, where small hairs can get irritated. A cluster of several furuncles is called a carbuncle (KAR-bunk-ul). Someone with a carbuncle may feel ill and and have a fever.
  • Impetigo (im-puh-TYE-go): This superficial skin infection is most common in young children, usually on the face, hands, or feet. It begins as a small blister or pimple, and then develops a honey-colored crust.
  • Cellulitis (sell-yuh-LYE-tus): This begins as a small area of redness, pain, swelling, and warmth on the skin, usually on the legs. As this area spreads, a child may feel feverish and ill.
  • A stye: Kids with one of these have a red, warm, uncomfortable bump near the edge of the eyelid.
  • MRSA: This type of staph bacteria is resistant to the antibiotics used treat staph infections. MRSA infections can be harder to treat, but most heal with proper care. Most MRSA infections involve the skin.
  • Scalded skin syndrome: This most often affects newborns and kids under age 5. It starts with a small staph skin infection, but the staph bacteria make a toxin that affects skin all over the body. The child has a fever, rash, and sometimes blisters. As blisters burst and the rash passes, the top layer of skin sheds and the skin surface becomes red and raw, like a burn. This serious illness affects the body in the same way as serious burns. It needs to be treated in a hospital. After treatment, most kids make a full recovery.
  • Wound infections: These cause symptoms (redness, pain, swelling, and warmth) similar to those from cellulitis. A person might have fever and feel sick in general. Pus or a cloudy fluid can drain from the wound and a yellow crust can develop.

How Do Staph Infections Spread?

Staph bacteria can spread:

  • when someone touches a contaminated surface
  • from person to person, especially in group living situations (like college dorms). Usually this happens when people with skin infections share personal things like bed linens, towels, or clothing.
  • from one area of their body to another, via dirty hands or fingernails

Warm, humid environments can contribute to staph infections, so excessive sweating can increase someone's chances of developing an infection. People with skin problems like burns or eczema may be more likely to get staph skin infections.

How Are Staph Infections Treated?

Most small staph skin infections can be treated at home:

  • Soak the affected area in warm water or apply warm, moist washcloths. Use a cloth or towel only once when you soak or clean an area of infected skin. Then, wash them in soap and hot water and dry them fully in a clothes dryer.
  • Put a heating pad or a hot water bottle to the skin for about 20 minutes, three or four times a day.
  • Apply antibiotic ointment, if recommended by your doctor.
  • Give pain relievers like acetaminophen or ibuprofen to ease pain until the infection goes away. Follow the package directions on how much to give and how often.
  • Cover the skin with a clean dressing or bandage.

Treat a stye by using warm compresses over the eye (with the eye closed) three or four times a day. Always use a clean washcloth each time. Occasionally, a stye will need a topical antibiotic.

Teens who get a staph infection on skin areas that are normally shaved should stop shaving until the infection clears up. If they do have to shave the area, they should use a clean disposable razor or clean the electric razor after each use.

Your doctor may prescribe an oral antibiotic for a staph skin infection. Give it on schedule for as many days as directed. More serious staph infections might need to be treated in a hospital, and an abscess (or pocket of pus) that doesn't respond to home care might need to be drained.

To help prevent a staph infection from spreading to other parts of the body:

  • Don't directly touch the infected skin.
  • Keep the area covered whenever possible.
  • Use a towel only once when you clean or dry the area. After using, wash the towel in hot water. Or use disposable towels.

How Long Does a Staph Infection Last?

How long it takes for a staph skin infection to heal depends on the type of infection and whether it's treated. A boil, for example, may take 10 to 20 days to heal without treatment, but treatment may speed up the healing process. Most styes go away on their own within several days.

Can We Prevent Staph Skin Infections?

  • Washing hands well and often is key to preventing staph infections.
  • Encourage kids to keep their skin clean with a daily bath or shower. If a skin condition such as eczema makes regular bathing difficult, ask your doctor for advice.
  • Keep areas of injured skin — such as cuts, scrapes, and rashes caused by allergic reactions or poison ivy — clean and covered, and follow any directions given by your doctor.
  • If someone in your family has a staph infection, don't share towels, sheets, or clothing until the infection has been fully treated.

When Should I Call the Doctor?

Call your doctor if:

  • Skin infections seem to be passing from one family member to another, or if two or more family members have skin infections at the same time.
  • You think your child has a serious wound that might be infected.
  • A stye doesn't go away in a few days.
  • A minor infection gets worse — for example, your child starts feeling feverish or ill, or the area spreads and gets very red and hot.
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Note: All information is for educational purposes only. For specific medical advice, diagnoses, and treatment, consult your doctor. © 1995-2020 KidsHealth®. All rights reserved. Images provided by The Nemours Foundation, iStock, Getty Images, Veer, Shutterstock, and Clipart.com.

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