What is a staph infection?
The staphylococcus aureus (staph) bacteria is a relatively common type of bacteria that usually doesn't cause any harm. However, a staph infection can occur when the staph bacteria enter the body and multiplies.
Many people carry a lot of different strains of staph bacteria either on the surface of their skin or in their nose, and in most cases they do not cause any problems.
However, if the bacteria do enter the body, they might multiply and cause an infection.
There are many different types of staph infection, ranging from boils to blood poisoning, and some are resistant to common antibiotics.
Some staph infections could be life threatening. See your doctor as soon as possible or call triple zero (000) and ask for an ambulance if you have these symptoms of an invasive staph infection:
- a temperature above 38°C
- a rapid heartbeat
- trouble breathing
- confusion or disorientation
- reduced urination
Who is at risk of a staph infection?
Anyone can develop a staph infection, but some people are more prone to staph infections than others. Those who are more likely to develop infections include:
- children and infants, who may develop an infection known as ‘school sores’ (impetigo) when they start attending daycare, preschool or school
- people with a weakened immune system, such as those with HIV/AIDS or those taking medicines to suppress their immune systems
- people who regularly have medical equipment entering their body, such as during kidney dialysis or when using catheters, feeding or breathing tubes
- people who have been in hospital for a long time, due to their contact with healthcare workers and proximity to other sick people
What causes staph infections?
There are several different types of staph infection. Skin infections are more common in crowded places where there is a lot of skin contact, such as in childcare centres. You can also become ill from food poisoning if the food you eat is contaminated by staph bacteria.
Staph skin infections
Staph infections on the skin include impetigo, wound infection, cellulitis and staphylococcal scalded skin syndrome (SSSS). You can learn more about this type of infection in healthdirect's staph skin infection article.
Symptoms of a staph skin infection include redness, swelling, pain, heat, and/or sores filled with pus.
Invasive staph infections
Invasive staph infections are far less common than skin infections, but are usually more severe. There are many types of invasive staph infection and you can learn more by reading our invasive staph infections article.
Symptoms of an invasive staph infection may include feeling generally unwell, high fever, uncontrollable shakes, and/or shortness of breath.
How are staph infections treated?
Most staph skin infections are treated with a course of antibiotics.
Simple ones can be treated at home. Serious ones need to be treated in hospital with intravenous antibiotics and other treatments.
Some staph aureus is resistant to many antibiotics. Methicillin-Resistant Staphylococcus Aureus (MRSA) has a strong resistance to an antibiotic called methicillin and can cause severe infections that cannot be treated using most antibiotics.
Due to MRSA, doctors have become more cautious about prescribing antibiotics. Only use antibiotics when you really need them to help reduce the risk of bacteria becoming resistant.
When should I see my doctor?
See your doctor if:
- you have an infection — an area of red, irritated or painful skin, or blisters filled with pus
- you have a fever
- the infection is getting worse or spreading
- it lasts more than a week
- you have a weakened immune system
- you keep getting staph infections
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Can staph infections be prevented?
In most cases you can avoid developing a staph skin infection through basic hygiene. Always wash your hands thoroughly with soap and running water and dry them with a clean towel or disposable paper towel.
In particular, wash your hands:
- before and after touching or cleaning an infected area
- after going to the bathroom
- after blowing your nose
- before handling and eating food
- after handling animals, including domestic pets
If you live with someone who has a staph skin infection you may be able to avoid developing the infection by:
- not sharing any personal items with them such as toothbrushes, towels, clothes and linen
- washing your hands immediately if you come into contact with them
- ensuring their bedding and towels are cleaned daily, with hot water and bleach, before their infection disappears
If you are at risk of developing an invasive staph infection, it is important to have a healthy lifestyle, maintaining a healthy diet, regular exercise, minimising alcohol and avoiding smoking and illicit drugs.
You can avoid food poisoning by ensuring work surfaces and cooking utensils are clean and always washing your hands before preparing food. Avoid handling food if you are ill, particularly with stomach problems or if you have open sores and cuts.
Staphylococcal food poisoning
You can avoid food poisoning by keeping high standards of food hygiene throughout the cooking process.
Keep your food safe by always cooking it properly, avoiding contaminating cooked food with raw food, and storing food at the right temperature.
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Last reviewed: August 2020