MRSA is a type of bacterial infection that is resistant to a number of widely used antibiotics. This means it can be more difficult to treat than other bacterial infections.
The full name of MRSA is meticillin-resistant staphylococcus aureus. You may have heard it called a superbug.
Staphylococcus aureus (also known as staph) is a common type of bacteria. It is 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 staph bacteria get into a break in the skin, they can cause life-threatening infections, such as blood poisoning or endocarditis (an infection of the inner lining of the heart).
Read more about the symptoms of a staph infection.
How bacteria become resistant to antibiotics
Antibiotic resistance can occur in several ways.
Strains of bacteria can mutate and over time become resistant to a specific antibiotic.
Alternatively, if you are treated with an antibiotic, it can destroy many of the harmless strains of bacteria that live in and on the body. This allows resistant bacteria to quickly multiply and take their place.
The overuse of antibiotics in recent years has played a major part in antibiotic resistance and superbugs. This includes using antibiotics to treat minor conditions that would have got better anyway and not finishing a recommended course of antibiotics.
How do you get MRSA?
MRSA infections are more common in people who are in hospital or nursing homes. Doctors often refer to this as healthcare-associated MRSA (or HA-MRSA).
Hospital patients are more at risk because:
- they often have an entry point for the bacteria to get into their body, such as a surgical wound
- many patients are older and weaker, which makes them more vulnerable to infection
- they are surrounded by a large number of people, which means bacteria can easily spread through direct contact with other patients or staff or contaminated surfaces
More recently, MRSA has been known to develop outside hospitals and nursing homes. This is known as community-associated MRSA (or CA-MRSA). It is more common in crowded environments where there is frequent skin-to-skin contact and hygiene is poor, such as sports teams, gyms, homeless shelters or army bases.
Read more about the possible causes of 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.
To reduce your risk of an MRSA infection:
- wash your hands before and after visiting someone in a care home (many hospitals provide antibacterial gel in wards)
- if you are going into hospital for an operation, ask to be screened for MRSA (see below)
- don't be afraid to speak to your nurse or doctor if you have any concerns about hygiene in your hospital
- put all disposable items, such as dressings, into the appropriate bins promptly
Read more about preventing MRSA.
Screening for MRSA
Most NHS patients who are admitted to hospital for a planned procedure are screened for MRSA. This helps reduce the chance of patients developing an MRSA infection or passing an infection on to other patients.
An MRSA infection is most commonly diagnosed using a blood, urine, tissue or sputum (spit) culture.
This involves taking a sample of one or more of these substances and placing them in a dish of nutrients. This should encourage any staph bacteria that are present to reproduce and grow.
If the bacteria develop, different antibiotics can be directed at them to see if the bacteria have developed resistance to the antibiotics.
Read more about NHS screening for MRSA.
Minor skin infections may not require any treatment other than draining away any pus from the site of the infection.
Otherwise, infections can be treated with antibiotics that MRSA has not yet developed resistance to. The exact antibiotic used will depend on the specific strain of MRSA involved.
Depending on the severity of your symptoms, antibiotic tablets or injections will be used and you may need to have a much longer course of treatment compared to a normal staph infection.
Read more about treating MRSA.
Common questions about MRSA