MRSA is a type of bacteria that's resistant to a number of widely used antibiotics. This means MRSA infections can be more difficult to treat than other bacterial infections. 

The full name of MRSA is methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus. You may have heard it called a "superbug".

Staphylococcus aureus (also known as staph) is a common type of bacteria. It's often carried on the skin and inside the nostrils and throat, and can cause mild infections of the skin, such as boils and impetigo.

If the bacteria get into a break in the skin, they can cause life-threatening infections, such as blood poisoning or endocarditis.

Read more about the symptoms of an MRSA infection.

How do you get MRSA?

MRSA bacteria are usually spread through skin-to-skin contact with someone who has an MRSA infection or has the bacteria living on their skin.

The bacteria can also be spread through contact with contaminated objects such towels, sheets, clothes, dressings, surfaces, door handles and floors.

People staying in hospital are most at risk of becoming infected with MRSA because:

  • they're surrounded by a large number of people, which means the bacteria can spread more easily
  • they often have an entry point for the bacteria to get into their body, such as a surgical wound or urinary catheter
  • they may have serious or complex health problems, which makes them more vulnerable to infection

It's also possible to become infected with MRSA outside of hospital, although this is much less common.

Read more about the possible causes of MRSA

Preventing MRSA

In recent years, rates of MRSA have fallen because of increased awareness of the infection by both medical staff and the public. However, MRSA still places a considerable strain on healthcare services.

Some people who need to be admitted to hospital will have MRSA screening beforehand (see below), but there are also some things you can do yourself to reduce your risk of becoming infected. These include:

  • washing your hands frequently – especially after using the toilet, and before and after eating
  • following any advice you're given about wound care and devices that could lead to infection (such as urinary catheters)
  • reporting any unclean toilet or bathroom facilities to staff – don't be afraid to talk to staff if you're concerned about hygiene

If you're visiting someone in hospital, you can reduce the chance of spreading MRSA by cleaning your hands before and after entering the ward. You should also use hand wipes or hand gel before touching the person you're visiting.

Read more about preventing MRSA.

Screening for MRSA

Some patients admitted to hospital for planned or emergency care are screened to see if they carry MRSA on their skin. This helps to reduce the chance of patients developing an MRSA infection or passing an infection on to other patients.

During the screening process, a cotton bud (swab) will be run over your skin, so it can be checked for MRSA bacteria. Swabs may be taken from different places, such as the inside of your nose, your throat, armpit, groin and any areas of damaged or open skin.

If MRSA bacteria are found, treatment with antibacterial bodywash or shampoo and nasal cream to remove the bacteria from your skin will usually need to be carried out before you're admitted.

Read more about MRSA screening.

Treating MRSA infections

Although MRSA infections can be more difficult to treat than other bacterial infections, they're still treatable because the MRSA bacteria aren't resistant to all antibiotics.

Minor skin infections may not always require any treatment, other than draining away any pus from the site of the infection, but in most other cases you'll be treated with antibiotics that MRSA has not yet developed resistance to.

Depending on the severity of your symptoms, antibiotic tablets or injections will be used and you may need to have a combination of antibiotics or take types of antibiotics that are rarely used for less serious infections.

Read more about treating MRSA.

Common questions about MRSA

Page last reviewed: 28/04/2015

Next review due: 28/04/2017