Seasoned athlete Henry was only 28 when he nearly lost his leg.
After a hard workout, he thought he had pulled a muscle. Pain seared through his leg, and within hours it was red and hot to the touch. He noticed a small white bump that looked like a pimple.
His primary care doctor didn’t test it or seem concerned. He shrugged it off as a viral infection and wrote a (useless) script for antibiotics.
But two days later, Henry couldn’t handle the pain and went for a second opinion. That decision saved his leg… and likely his life.
Henry had a serious staph infection. Once he took the right meds, he healed in a week. But his second doctor told him he’d come within a day of losing his leg.
Not only is this a case of terrible doctoring (don’t get me started on writing an antibiotic script for a virus!), but it’s an important lesson on when to get help.
Staph infections are surprisingly common. They’re caused by the bacteria Staphylococcus aureus. S. aureus lives in the dirt and all around us. In fact, 20% of us have it on our skin all the time. Another 30% of us carry it occasionally. It lives in the skin inside our noses as well as on our chest, armpits, and hands.
Sometimes staph bacteria get into our skin and cause an infection. The infections typically appear as small, painful lumps filled with white pus. They’re often hard, hot to the touch, and red. Most folks call these boils.
You can usually treat small (less than two inches across), less painful boils at home. Applying warm compresses helps the pus drain. After that, keep a clean bandage over it, changing it every time it gets dirty or at least twice a day. You’ll need to thoroughly wash your hands every time and make sure to wash everything the boil touches. That includes washing towels, clothes, and bedding.
However, staph infections of the skin can get more serious, as Henry experienced. If the pain is severe or the redness spreads, get to a doctor. Similarly, if you have immune system problems, you need to get medical care. That includes folks over 65, pregnant women, those with diabetes, and other immune-compromising diseases. If you’re in this category, don’t mess around. See a doctor right away.
The reason for concern here is important. Staph can spread to your bloodstream. That leads to sepsis and toxic shock – which can kill you.
The infection can also spread to your organs. In fact, it’s one of the main causes of something called infective endocarditis. That’s when your heart gets infected. It’s a life-threatening condition, but it only affects about 10,000 to 20,000 people in the U.S. each year (and many cases involve those with heart valve transplants or other infections).
Staph also causes cellulitis. Cellulitis appears as a red rash that’s hot, swollen, and tender to the touch. It happens when bacteria infect the lower layer of the skin. It can spread quickly and enter your bloodstream, which is why you should always get medical care for any skin condition like this.
Finally, the last reason you need to pay attention to staph… there’s a strain of staph bacteria you’re likely familiar with: methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus, also known as MRSA. About 90,000 folks contract MRSA each year, with 20,000 dying from it. It’s common in hospitals and long-term care facilities.
The problem is that MRSA is resistant to methicillin, a standard antibiotic. That makes it hard to kill. Worse, we’re seeing more and more staph bacteria gaining this resistance to common drugs. It’s only a matter of time before waves of folks start dying from what used to be “harmless.”
The best defense: Only take antibiotics when you have a serious bacterial infection (like staph). Take all of the pills you’re given to make sure you kill all the bacteria. And be sure to wash your hands regularly with plain soap and water.
If you suspect you have a staph infection, make sure your doctor takes a culture and tests it. The sooner they do, the sooner you can get the correct medications to fight it.
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Dr. David Eifrig and the Health & Wealth Bulletin Research Team
April 5, 2018