Types of Staph Infections and Complications

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A nurse preparing to dress a drained abscess.
A nurse preparing to dress a drained abscess.
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Staphylococcus infections are common bacterial infections. There are more than 30 types of staph organisms that can make people quite ill. Infection caused by Staphylococcus aureus is the most common. Many people carry staph bacteria on their skin and in their nose, but if they are healthy and have no open wounds, they usually never get sick. Others become seriously ill with staph infections involving the skin, lungs, heart and bones.

Staph bacteria can spread easily from person to person and from object to person. They are particularly prevalent in places like gyms, locker rooms, and areas where people congregate. But you can also find staph bacteria on everyday objects like door knobs and telephones.

Although many staph infections are treatable, some infections progress to more severe stages resulting in complications like sepsis.

Different Types of Infections

One of the most common types of staph infections is cellulitis, an infection of the skin itself. There may or may not be an obvious cut or opening in the skin, but the appearance of the infection changes as the bacteria infect deeper layers of skin. Symptoms of cellulitis include red, swollen, painful skin. It will feel warm when you touch it. 

Other types of staph infections include:

  • Boils, which are infected hair follicles or oil glands

  • Impetigo, a common very infectious skin infection in children that causes blisters

  • Pneumonia

  • Toxic shock syndrome

  • Endocarditis (infection in the lining of the heart)

  • Osteomyelitis (infection in the bone)

  • Septic arthritis

Staph bacteria can also cause food poisoning.

Staph Infection Symptoms

The symptoms of staph infections relate to the part of the body that is infected. For example, skin infections are red, ‘angry’ looking (irritated), and may be leaking pus or discharge. They are also usually quite painful. There are no medically defined stages of a staph skin infection, however, you may see a red, tender bump or cluster of bumps like blisters in the early stages. If bacteria invade deeper layers of skin, as with cellulitis, open sores may develop in later stages.

Other staph infection symptoms vary by the site of infection:

MRSA 

When antibiotics were first discovered, they were considered to be miracle drugs. Infections used to be a major killer, but antibiotics helped save millions across the world. Overuse and misuse of antibiotics allows the development of antibiotic-resistant bacteria. Every time a person takes antibiotics, sensitive bacteria (bacteria that antibiotics can still attack) are killed, but resistant bacteria are left to grow and multiply. This is how repeated use of antibiotics can increase the number of drug-resistant bacteria.

MRSA, or methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus, is one such bacterium. It’s commonly found in healthcare facilities and is responsible for many healthcare-acquired infections (HAIs), although MRSA is now found more and more in the community. 

Because MRSA is resistant to commonly used antibiotics, it can do a lot of harm before it is successfully treated. Wounds with MRSA can progress into deep abscesses, sometimes causing the infection to spread inside the body. People with MRSA must be kept in isolation to keep them from inadvertently spreading the bacteria to others. People who are ill or compromised in any way can become seriously ill with MRSA infections. Doctors use a different set of antibiotics to control MRSA, although some staph are resistant to those antibiotics too.

Staph Infection Complications

Most staph infections can be successfully treated with antibiotics, and the earlier treatment starts, the better. However, if they are left untreated or undiagnosed, staph infections can lead to serious complications. Untreated staph infections, including MRSA, could spread to the bloodstream, lungs, heart, bones, and even the joints.

Infections can also trigger an inflammatory response called sepsis. Sepsis occurs when your overwhelmed immune system starts to attack your whole body rather than the infection itself. The infection can seem minor, like a boil or cellulitis, yet still trigger sepsis. If sepsis occurs, possible complications include amputations, organ failure, and even death.

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Medical Reviewer: William C. Lloyd III, MD, FACS
Last Review Date: 2019 Nov 3
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