What I learned from my staph infection

Since being hospitalized for a staph infection earlier this year, I’ve been surprised to learn how many of my friends and colleagues have had a similar experience.

Since being hospitalized for a staph infection earlier this year, I’ve been surprised to learn how many of my friends and colleagues have had a similar experience. For most people, treatment with an antibiotic topical or prescription oral medication is sufficient to stop a skin infection. But for others, like me, taking an oral antibiotic isn’t enough, which is why I ended up in the hospital for IV drug treatment and surgery to remove the stubborn infection that set up residence in my left elbow.

A staph infection is caused by Staphylococcus (staph) bacteria. My research shows a lot of us (25 to 30 percent) carry staph in our noses and on the skin. An infection often begins with a little cut, which is how that nasty bug gets inside the body where it can cause serious damage. (I’m blaming my husband’s horse, who nipped a small chunk out of my arm when his girth was tightened. Ouch!)

I’ve read that thousands of people have staph infections every year, and most of them are easily treated. According to WebMD.com, the difference between a minor infection and a dangerous one is the strength of the infection, how deep it goes, how fast it spreads and how it responds to treatment with antibiotics. The “quick fix” tendency that leads to overuse of antibiotics has led to many of these bugs now being antibiotic-resistant.

So how do you recognize a staph infection and what should you do to avoid ending up in the hospital? Here’s what my wonderful doctor, infectious disease specialist Preethi Ananthakrishnan, M.D., (Dr. A) told me:

“First, look for signs of infection, which would be redness around a cut or scrape. The infected area can also be tender and swollen and may or may not have pus. And for sure, anytime you start running a fever with these other symptoms, it’s time to see the doctor.”

Dr. A said the first line of defense is prevention:

  1. Clean all cuts and scrapes with soap and water. If soap and water aren’t available, use hand sanitizing gel until you can clean the wound properly.
  2. Cover cleaned cuts and scrapes with a sterile bandage and watch for signs of infection. Continue wearing a bandage until the cut is healed.
  3. Keep your hands away from your face — especially your nose, where staph can live along the nasal cavity.
  4. Keep your fingernails short. Bacteria can live under the nails and easily transfer staph into an open wound.
  5. Don’t share athletic equipment, especially razors and/or towels in a gym, where staph can be transferred fairly easily.

It boils down to good hygiene and prompt treatment of cuts and scrapes. I did begin taking antibiotics very soon after my elbow began to hurt, but my staph infection had clearly gotten ahead of me, which is what put me in the hospital. I have a 4-inch scar to remind me to be more careful about cuts and scrapes. I keep hand sanitizer in my car, and if I get a cut or scrape you can bet I attend to it as quickly as I can.

Looking back, I know how lucky I am that I have a daughter who is a primary care physician assistant and identified the infection quickly. I’m also lucky that I ended up in a good hospital with good surgeons and infectious disease specialists to make sure I got well. But don’t count on luck to keep you well. Take precautions and avoid the experience I had.

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