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Early Signs & Symptoms of MRSA

by
author image Kat McCallum
Kat McCallum has been a full-time medical writer since 2004. Her writing is found in "Lancet Neurology" and "Oncology News International," and on AuntMinnie.com, a website for radiologists. She also held communication leadership positions at the American Academy of Neurology and the Minnesota Trade Office. McCallum has a Bachelor of Arts in communications and political science from the University of Minnesota.
Early Signs & Symptoms of MRSA
The majority of MRSA infections are spread through hospitals. Photo Credit Jupiterimages/Comstock/Getty Images

Methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus, or MRSA, remains a major public health threat in the United States. Under growing pressure, hospitals--the major source of MRSA infections--have introduced stringent hygiene procedures to slow its spread. People who have been hospitalized, or who have had any type of surgical procedure, should be aware of MRSA signs and symptoms. About one percent of people in the United States are carriers of the MRSA bacteria, according to information released in June 2008 from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).

Appearance

MRSA may initially appear on the skin as a rash, a pimple, or painful boil or abscess. Some people have mistaken an MRSA infection for a spider bite. An MRSA infection of the skin typically appears red and swollen. Pus and other drainage of the infected area may also be present, according to the CDC. If left untreated, an MRSA skin infection can quickly develop into a deeper infection that must be removed surgically.

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Symptoms

MRSA infection symptoms vary depending on where the infection originates and whether it has spread to other organs. Some common signs of an MRSA infection are pain at the infection site, fever, muscle and joint aches, and headache and fatigue. If the infection is in the lungs it may cause shortness of breath, chills, cough and fever. Burning or pain during urination, particularly following catheterization during surgery, could be a sign of an MRSA infection of the urinary tract.

Risks

MRSA skin infections are contagious and can be spread through skin-to-skin contact with open cuts and abrasions, or they can enter the body through a catheter or breathing tube. MRSA is spread most often through hospitals so being hospitalized, having a surgical procedure, or living in a long-term care facility, all carry a small risk for acquiring MRSA, according to the Mayo Clinic. Community-acquired, or CA-MRSA, outbreaks have been traced to crowded situations including jails, military training facilities and child care centers, where it spread through contaminated surfaces, skin-to-skin contact and poor hygiene. MRSA occurs more frequently among older adults, men who have sex with other men and people with weakened immune systems, according to the Mayo Clinic. People who have a lowered immune systems from an unrelated illness have a higher risk of developing a more serious MRSA infection, and should check with a doctor early if they suspect an infection. More serious infections may cause pneumonia, bloodstream infections, or surgical wound infections, according to the CDC. In very rare cases, MRSA and other types of staph infections can lead to necrotizing fasciitis, the so-called "flesh-eating" bacterial infection. Necrotizing fasciitis is a serious skin infection that spreads very quickly.

When to Get Help

Minor skin problems such as insect bits, wounds and abrasions should be watched for signs of infection. According to the CDC, a doctor should see any wound that becomes infected. A doctor also needs to be consulted if a prescribed antibiotic isn't working to cure an infection. An antibiotic isn't working if the infection is no better after three or four days, if the infection keeps getting worse, or if a fever develops or gets worse after starting the antibiotic.

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