MRSA (Staph Infection)

What is MRSA or “staph” infection?

Staphylococcus aureus, commonly called “staph,” is a type of bacteria found on the skin or in the nose. About 30% of people have staph bacteria, but do not have any symptoms of an infection. MRSA (Methicillin-Resistant Staphylococcus aureus) is a staph that is resistant to commonly used antibiotics. Skin infections with MRSA often begin with an injury allowing the bacteria to enter the skin and develop into an infection.

MRSA is most commonly found in health care facilities but is a rapidly emerging public health problem in the larger community, often among athletes of close-contact sports such as wrestling, football and rugby. Community-associated MRSA has become the most frequent cause of skin and soft tissue infections presenting to emergency departments in the US.

What are the signs and symptoms?

In the community, most MRSA infections are skin infections that may appear as red, swollen, painful pustules or boils, and which may have pus or other drainage. These infections commonly occur at sites of visible skin trauma, such as cuts and abrasions, and in areas of the body covered by hair (back of neck, groin, buttocks, armpits, beard area).

Staph infections, including MRSA, generally start as small red bumps that resemble pimples, boils or spider bites. These can quickly turn into deep, painful abscesses that require surgical draining. Sometimes the bacteria remain confined to the skin. But they can also burrow into the body, causing potentially life-threatening infections in bones, joints, surgical wounds, the bloodstream, heart valves and lungs.

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How is MRSA transmitted?

MRSA is transmitted through direct skin-to-skin contact with an infected person or through contact with items or surfaces that have come into contact with someone else’s infection (e.g., towels, sheets, sports equipment, bandages, razors). Breaks in the skin such as cuts or abrasions can allow MRSA to enter the body and cause infection. Unsanitary living conditions or participation in contact sports can increase the risk of MRSA transmission.

When should I seek medical advice?

Keep an eye on minor skin problems—pimples, insect bites, cuts and scrapes. If you are a Brown student and think you have an infection, contact Health Services at 401.863-3953 for an appointment as soon as possible. Early treatment can help prevent the infection from becoming more serious.

How is MRSA diagnosed?

Doctors diagnose MRSA by checking a tissue sample or nasal secretions for signs of the drug-resistant bacteria.

How is MRSA treated?

MRSA may be treated with antibiotics, particularly vancomycin, that have proved effective against particular strains. To help reduce the threat that MRSA will become resistant to these antibiotics, doctors may drain an abscess caused by MRSA rather than treating the infection with drugs.

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Why are athletes at particular risk?

MRSA might spread more easily among athletes because they may:

  • Tend to have repeated skin-to-skin contact.
  • Share items and surfaces that come into direct skin contact.
  • Have difficulty staying clean during training or games.
  • Get cuts or abrasions in the skin that, if left uncovered, allow staph and MRSA to enter and cause infection.

How can I protect myself and others?

These common-sense precautions can help you reduce your risk and help prevent the spread of MRSA:

  • Wash your hands. Careful hand washing is your best defense against germs. Scrub hands briskly for at least 15 seconds, then dry them with a disposable towel and use another towel to turn off the faucet. Carry a small bottle of hand sanitizer.
  • Avoid sharing personal items such as towels, sheets, razors, clothing and athletic equipment. MRSA can be spread through contaminated objects as well as through direct contact.
  • Wash towels and sheets frequently in hot water. Do not overload washing machine.
  • Keep wounds covered. Cuts and abrasions should be kept clean and covered with sterile, dry bandages until they heal. The pus from infected sores may contain MRSA, and keeping wounds covered will help keep the bacteria from spreading.
  • Shower immediately after athletic games or practices. Use soap and water. Don’t share towels.
  • Ask your coach or athletic trainer whether you should sit out games or practices if you have a wound that’s draining or appears infected (red, swollen, warm to the touch or tender).
  • If you have a cut or sore, wash towels and bed linens in a washing machine set to the “hot” water setting (with added blea ch if possible) and dry them in a hot dryer. Wash gym and athletic clothes after each wearing.
  • If you have a skin infection that requires medical treatment, ask if you should be tested for MRSA. Testing for MRSA may get you the specific antibiotic you need to effectively treat your infection.
  • Always use antibiotics appropriately. When you’re prescribed an antibiotic, take all of your doses, even if the infection is getting better. Don’t share antibiotics with others or save unfinished antibiotics for another time. Inappropriate use of antibiotics, including not taking all of your prescription and overuse, contributes to resistance. If your infection isn’t improving after a few days of taking an antibiotic, contact your medical provider.

Can I make an appointment at Health Services?

If you are a Brown student and you are concerned about MRSA, you can make a confidential appointment at Health Services by calling 401.863-3953.  Health Services provides a range of services including general health care and emergency medical care. You can request a medical provider by gender or by name. We are located at 13 Brown Street on the corner of Brown and Charlesfield Streets.

Links you can use

To learn more about MRSA, you can visit:

The Mayo Clinic
This site has information on the symptoms, treatment and prevention of MRSA.

Centers for Disease Control
This site has an overview of community associated MRSA, related articles and educational materials.

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Disclaimer: Health Education is part of Health Services at Brown University. Health Education maintains this site as a resource for Brown students. This site is not intended to replace consultation with your medical providers. No site can replace real conversation. Health Education offers no endorsement of and assumes no liability for the currency, accuracy, or availability of the information on the sites we link to or the care provided by the resources listed. Health Services staff are available to treat and give medical advice to Brown University students only. If you are not a Brown student, but are in need of medical assistance please call your own health care provider or in case of an emergency, dial 911. Please contact us if you have comments, questions or suggestions.