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 enters the body and multiplies.
What is a staph infection?
Around one third of people carry staph bacteria either on the surface of their skin or in their nose, and in most cases it does not cause any problems.
However, if it does enter the body the bacteria might multiply, which could lead to an infection.
There are many different types of staph infection, ranging from boils to blood poisoning, and some are resistant to common antibiotics.
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 medications 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.
How do I get a staph infection?
There are several different types of staph infection. Infections that occur on the skin can be passed on by air, food or contact with someone who has a staph infection, or by touching a contaminated surface.
Staph bacteria may cause an infection if there is an abundance of it on the surface of the skin or if it enters the body through broken skin such as wounds, cuts or grazes.
You can also become ill from staph aureus 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 the healthdirect staph skin infection article.
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.
How do I avoid getting a staph infection?
Staph skin infections
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.
Invasive staph infections
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.
Washing your hands thoroughly after going to the bathroom, before and after preparing food and after being in a crowded area can also reduce your risk of developing the infection.
Staphylococcal food poisoning
You can avoid food poisoning by ensuring that high standards of food hygiene are maintained throughout the cooking process.
When cooking, keep hands, work surfaces and cooking utensils clean.
Wash hands before preparing food and after:
- going to the bathroom
- touching raw food
- touching bins
- handling pets.
Avoid handling food if you are ill, particularly with stomach problems or if you have open sores and cuts.
Cooking food properly
Meat should be cooked right through.
If you reheat food, make sure it is hot all the way through. Never reheat food more than once.
Chilling food properly
Food needs to be kept at the right temperature to prevent harmful bacteria from growing and multiplying. Food that needs to be refrigerated should always be stored in the fridge, which should be set at 0-5°C.
Always check the label on the packaging for the correct storage instructions.
Cooked leftovers should not be left out to cool for more than an hour before being put in the fridge or freezer.
Cross-contamination occurs when bacteria is transferred from one food (usually a raw food) to another food.
This can happen when the contaminated food is in direct contact with the other food, or when bacteria from contaminated food is spread through hands, utensils or work surfaces to other foods.
You can avoid cross-contaminating food by:
- always washing your hands after touching raw food
- storing raw foods separately from other foods
- storing raw meat in sealed containers and keeping the containers at the bottom of the fridge, so that it cannot leak onto other food
- using a separate chopping board for raw food and other food, or washing chopping boards thoroughly between uses
- cleaning utensils thoroughly after using them for raw food
- not washing raw meat or poultry, since washing may spray harmful bacteria around the kitchen.
You can read more about preventing food poisoning here.
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.
With the development of MRSA, doctors have become more cautious about prescribing antibiotics, and people have been warned against taking them unless there is a clear need. Doing this will help reduce the risk of bacteria become resistant to antibiotics.
You can read more about MRSA here.
When should I get help?
If you suspect that you have a staph skin infection, it's important to see your doctor as soon as possible.
Severe staph skin infections, like staphylococcal scalded skin syndrome (SSSS), may need to be treated in hospital.
Invasive staph infections could be life threatening. If you have symptoms of an invasive staph infection, see your doctor as soon as possible or call triple zero (000) and ask for an ambulance.
Last reviewed: October 2016