If you've developed a boil-like skin rash after spending time in a hospital or healthcare facility, it's important to consider the possibility that the problem might be MRSA. Short for methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus, MRSA is a bacteria that can cause oozing, blister-like rashes on the skin. The scary thing about MRSA is that, as its name suggests, it is resistant to methicillin, the antibiotic that is typically used to treat Staph aureus infections. Here's what you should do about your rash and what you need to know about MRSA.
What does a MRSA infection of the skin look like?
The infection usually starts off as a single boil or blister. It may be filled with pus or a semi-clear, pussy liquid. The area around the bump is usually red and swollen. You'll probably experience pain if you press on the bump or around it. Some patients develop a fever when infected with MRSA, but the absence of a fever does not mean your rash is not MRSA.
If a MRSA infection is not treated, it can move deeper into the body, penetrating the skin to cause a large abscess and eventually pass on to other tissues like the blood, heart valves, and joints.
What causes a MRSA infection?
A species of bacteria called Staphylococcus aureus is always found on your skin. There are many strains of Staph aureus; those that are not killed by the antibiotic methicillin are considered MRSA. Usually, Staph bacteria are harmless, but if your immune system is compromised and the bacteria happen to enter your body through a small cut or wound, they can cause the skin infection you're experiencing.
MRSA strains are very common in hospitals. This is thought to be because so many cleaning solutions and antibiotics are used in these buildings. The only bacteria that survive are the tough, resistant ones like MRSA. Most people who contract MRSA first develop symptoms during or after a hospital stay. MRSA is also spread in close living quarters such as in military or college housing.
What should you do if you think you have MRSA?
If you do not have a fever and the boil is not overly painful, call your doctor's office and explain what is going on. They will probably want to see you within the next day or so. If you do have a fever, the boil is very large, or it's very painful, head to urgent care or the emergency room. These may be signs that the infection is spreading past your skin, which means more immediate treatment is needed. Your doctor may take a swab of the rash or boils to verify that they are indeed caused by MRSA.
How is MRSA treated?
If the boil has not popped on its own, your doctor will probably lance it and drain it for you. This may be a bit uncomfortable at first, but you should then experience relief when the pressure from within the boil is relieved. Many strains of MRSA do respond to some antibiotics—just not methicillin. Vancomycin is often used with success. So your doctor will prescribe either an oral antibiotic or a topical antibiotic cream for you to use. You'll have to watch the area carefully over the next few days. If the rash is not getting any better, this may mean the antibiotic you're using is ineffective. Your doctor may need to try a different one.
Make sure you take your antibiotic for the full time recommended, even if your skin appears to be healed before the antibiotics are gone. If you stop taking the antibiotics before the bacteria are completely gone, all that will remain are the strongest, most resistant bacteria. Letting them survive is how resistance happens in the first place.
Don't ignore a boil-like rash that's red and painful. You may have MRSA, and treatment is essential to prevent infection damage to your other organs. For more info, talk to your healthcare provider.