How to recognize a staph infection and when to get medical attention (2023)

  • Staphylococcus bacteria live on skin and can cause a staph infection if they enter the bloodstream.
  • Staph infections can involve a range of symptoms, like vomiting, rashes or inflamed skin, and fever.
  • A staph infection may require treatment with prescription antibiotics, so talk to your doctor ASAP.

Staph infections are common infections caused by the bacteria Staphylococcus. While there are over 30 different types of Staphylococcus, one strain, Staphylococcus aureus, causes most of the millions of infections that occur in the United States each year.

Most staph infections remain relatively mild and involve a straightforward approach to treatment. In some cases, though, staph infections can become a serious medical concern.

Read on to learn the types, symptoms, and treatment of staph infections.

What is a staph infection?

Staph bacteria are often found on the skin or nose of healthy people. In fact, up to 30% of people are carriers of staph. Most of the time, the bacteria are harmless, but if staph enters the body through a small cut, for example, it can cause an infection.

If you have a staph infection or staph bacteria on your skin, you can also transmit it to other people — through skin-to-skin contact or on objects where the bacteria live, like towels or bed linens.

Staph infections are usually minor skin infections. If the bacteria enter more deeply into the body through the bloodstream, however, this can create a wide range of problems requiring medical treatment.

(Video) Ask a Doctor: Staph Infection

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), in 2017 nearly 20,000 deaths happened as a result of staph entering the bloodstream. Many of these cases happened in healthcare facilities and hospitals.

Staph infections also can and do occur in the general community — often as a result of uncovered wounds — but a recent hospital stay increases your risk, according to the CDC.

Still, severe infections remain relatively rare in otherwise healthy people, says Dr. Viktoryia D. Kazlouskaya, a dermatologist and assistant professor at the University of Pittsburgh.

Symptoms of a staph infection

Though all staph infections are caused by the same type of bacteria, the symptoms can vary widely, depending on where in the body the infection occurs.

Symptoms of a staph infection might include:

Food poisoning

Food poisoning caused by Staphylococcus aureus bacteria can happen when people who carry staph handle food. Symptoms typically begin 30 minutes to 8 hours after eating contaminated food and tend to last no more than a day. You might experience:

  • Nausea
  • Vomiting and diarrhea
  • Stomach cramps
(Video) Staph Infections of the Skin – Staph Infection Symptoms | Staphylococcus Aureus and Treatment

Bacteremia

Bacteremia is a serious complication of staph that happens when the bacteria get into your bloodstream. General symptoms include fever and low blood pressure.

It can affect your brain, heart and lungs, your muscles and bones, and any implanted devices, like a pacemaker or artificial joint.

Toxic shock syndrome

Toxic shock syndrome, a condition caused by toxins produced by staph, can be life threatening.

The symptoms include:

  • High fever
  • A sunburn-like rash on your palms or across large areas of your body
  • Nausea, vomiting, and diarrhea
  • Low blood pressure

Though it's most commonly associated with tampon use, toxic shock syndrome can also happen as a complication of skin wounds or surgery.

Septic arthritis

Septic arthritis can happen when staph infects a joint, most commonly large joints like the hips and knees. Symptoms include:

(Video) 3 Ways to Recognize Staph Infection Symptoms

  • Swollen, warm joints with severe pain
  • Fever
  • Limited range of motion in the affected joint

Staph infections on the skin

Some skin infections commonly known by other names are caused by staph bacteria. Staph doesn't affect unbroken skin, but it can enter the body through small cuts or wounds and through mucous membranes, like the nose or mouth.

Staph skin infections more commonly develop in people who have frequent skin injuries, especially when they also have dry skin.

Most staph infections on the skin are treatable — but they can become dangerous if the bacteria enter your body more deeply. Some types of staph infections on the skin include:

  • Furuncle: This type of staph infection, also called boils, shows up as tender spots or lumps that often contain pus. They develop when part of the hair follicle becomes infected deep within the skin. Boils can appear anywhere, but they commonly appear on the face, back of the neck, armpit, and thighs.
  • Cellulitis: This infection of the lower layer of your skin causes warm, swollen skin that feels painful to the touch. You may also have a fever and chills. Cellulitis usually affects the lower leg — an area away from your attention that can easily go unnoticed. But Dr. Eva Shelton, an internal medicine physician and content developer at Mochi, says it can also occur in other places like your face or arms. Cellulitis can cause serious complications, so it requires prompt medical treatment.
  • Staphylococcal scalded skin syndrome: This condition, which mostly develops in children under the age of five, starts with a fever and skin discoloration. Within 1-2 days fluid-filled blisters form and parts of the top layer of skin peel off. This infection is treatable, and children usually recover well with treatment.
  • Wound infections: Any open wound on the skin is vulnerable to staph infections. These infections will involve symptoms similar to cellulitis — pain, swelling, and warmth.

Staph infections on the face

Certain types of staph infections more typically occur on the face. Potentially serious cases to pay attention to are those near the eyes and nose, Shelton says.

Since these areas are close to the brain and central nervous system, staph bacteria in those areas could cause serious health complications.

  • Folliculitis: This infection is caused when a hair follicle gets infected with staph. Both folliculitis and boils involve hair follicles, but folliculitis typically happens closer to the surface of your skin. Often caused by shaving, it usually presents as a white-headed pimple. It can happen anywhere hair grows on your body.
  • Impetigo: This staph infection can also be caused by a strep infection. It causes large blisters that ooze fluid and develop a honey-colored crust. While impetigo can affect people of any age, it's most common in young children. Kazlouskaya says it can quickly spread from the face to the rest of the body and can be transmitted to other children.
  • Stye: This type of staph infection affects the oil gland of the eye. Styes are painful lumps on the edge of your eyelid that often contain pus. They can cause a lot of discomfort, but they usually go away on their own within a few days.
(Video) Understanding Cellulitis: Skin and Soft Tissue Infections

Treatment

Folliculitis and stye may clear up on their own, though the amount of time this takes can range from a few days to a few weeks. You can also treat minor infections by cleaning the area, using warm compresses, or applying over-the-counter topical antibiotics like Neosporin or Mycitracin.

Other staph infections require treatment with prescription antibiotics. Because staph can cause serious complications if it gets into your bloodstream, Kazlouskaya says you should promptly connect with a doctor if you have:

  • A quickly spreading infection
  • A fever
  • Malaise, or a general sense of unwellness
  • Swelling and pain in the affected area

A healthcare professional can test a swab of your skin, nasal secretion, blood, or urine to determine which antibiotics will most effectively treat your infection. They may prescribe topical antibiotics, oral antibiotics, or both. They may also lance and drain a staph skin infection.

MRSA is often transmitted in hospitals and other healthcare settings, but you can also acquire it in community settings. It often requires treatment with stronger intravenous (IV) antibiotics.

Insider's takeaway

Staph infections are fairly common. Usually, they're minor skin conditions that improve with treatment.

An untreated staph infection, however, can have serious medical complications, and it could even become fatal. If you think you may have a staph infection, it's always a good idea to check in with a healthcare professional for more guidance.

Adam Barnes
(Video) How to Get Rid of a Staph Infection

FAQs

When should I go to the doctor for a staph infection? ›

Antibiotic-resistant staph infections are dangerous and potentially life-threatening. Call your doctor if your possible staph infection is accompanied by a fever, intense pain or redness, or red marks radiating from the wound.

How do you confirm a staph infection? ›

Most often, providers diagnose staph infections by checking blood, urine, skin, infected material or nasal secretions for signs of the bacteria. Additional tests can help your provider choose the antibiotic that will work best against the bacteria. Recommend other tests.

Should I go to the hospital if I think I have a staph infection? ›

While some may seem harmless (and many are), a staph or strep infection can spread rapidly and cause sepsis, which is a life-threatening condition. You should also head to urgent care if you see symptoms of cellulitis, a bacterial skin infection that can be difficult to treat at home.

How do you know if your staph infection is getting worse? ›

If the sore becomes unusually painful or red, get prompt medical attention. If red lines develop, that's a sign the infection is spreading and needs immediate medical attention.

How do I know if my staph infection is in my bloodstream? ›

Sepsis, which is an infection of the bloodstream, and one of the most dangerous forms of staph infection. Symptoms include rapid breathing, an elevated heart rate, fever, chills, and disorientation. Staph infections in bones which also cause fever and chills accompanied by pain in the infected area.

Do all staph infections need antibiotics? ›

Staph infections are caused by bacteria called staphylococcus. They most often affect the skin. They can go away on their own, but sometimes they need to be treated with antibiotics.

When should you go to the hospital for an infection? ›

If there is fever, rapidly spreading redness, rapid heart rate, or extraordinary pain that is disproportionate to the wound or injury, that is when you tell the patient to visit the hospital,” he said.

What to do if you think you have staph? ›

If you have symptoms of a staph infection, contact your healthcare provider for diagnosis and treatment. See your provider if you or your child has an area of skin that is blistered, irritated or red, especially if there's also a fever. Only healthcare providers can diagnose and treat a staph infection.

What does early stage staph infection look like? ›

Staph skin infections, including MRSA , generally start as swollen, painful red bumps that might look like pimples or spider bites. The affected area might be: Warm to the touch. Full of pus or other drainage.

How do you know if an infection is spreading? ›

Signs the infection has spread include:
  1. a high temperature (fever) of 38C (100.4F) or above.
  2. a fast heartbeat or fast breathing.
  3. being sick.
  4. diarrhoea.
  5. feeling dizzy or faint.
  6. confusion or disorientation.
  7. cold, clammy, pale skin.
  8. unresponsiveness or loss of consciousness.
9 Feb 2022

How do you know when an infection is serious? ›

The following are signs you have a serious infection:
  1. Severe headache.
  2. Constant vomiting.
  3. Bloodstained vomit, stool, or urine.
  4. Peculiar redness or swelling of your skin.
  5. Recurring fever.
  6. Shortness of breath.
  7. Excruciating abdominal pain.
  8. A persistent sore throat.
1 Nov 2020

Can urgent care diagnose staph? ›

While these bacteria can be harmless, they can also cause major issues if left unchecked. Our team at Integrity Urgent Care can help identify staph infections and provide you with a treatment plan to keep it in check.

How long does it take for staph to get in your bloodstream? ›

Extremely variable - symptoms can appear in 1-10 days.

What percentage of staph infections are fatal? ›

Staphylococcus aureus bacteremia (SAB) is an important infection with an incidence rate ranging from 20 to 50 cases/100,000 population per year. Between 10% and 30% of these patients will die from SAB.

How long does a staph infection last without treatment? ›

How long it takes for a staph skin infection to heal depends on the type of infection and whether it's treated. A boil, for example, may take 10 to 20 days to heal without treatment, but treatment may speed up the healing process. Most styes go away on their own within several days.

When is staph infection serious? ›

Staph can cause serious infections if it gets into the blood and can lead to sepsis or death. Staph is either methicillin-resistant staph (MRSA) or methicillin-susceptible staph (MSSA). Staph can spread in and between hospitals and other healthcare facilities, and in communities.

How do you test for staph at home? ›

The only way to know for sure if you have a staph infection is by seeing a health care provider. A cotton swab is used to collect a sample from an open skin rash or skin sore. A blood, urine, or sputum sample may also be collected. The sample is sent to a lab to test for staph.

How does staph turn into sepsis? ›

For patients diagnosed with a Staphylococcus aureus infection, often referred to as a staph or MRSA infection, every minute counts. The bacteria create havoc in the body. The immune system goes into overdrive. The heightened immune response can lead to sepsis, which kills 30 to 50 per cent of the people who develop it.

Can your body fight off a staph infection without antibiotics? ›

Yes. Many staph skin infections may be treated by draining the abscess or boil and may not require antibiotics. Drainage of skin boils or abscesses should only be done by a healthcare provider. Do not try to drain the infection yourself.

What happens if you ignore a staph infection? ›

Sepsis. If a staph skin infection is left untreated, it can eventually enter the bloodstream and lead to sepsis, Dr.

What is the most common way to get a staph infection? ›

What causes staph infections? Some people carry staph bacteria on their skin or in their noses, but they do not get an infection. But if they get a cut or wound, the bacteria can enter the body and cause an infection. Staph bacteria can spread from person to person.

What are the early warning signs of sepsis? ›

The signs and symptoms of sepsis can include a combination of any of the following:
  • confusion or disorientation,
  • shortness of breath,
  • high heart rate,
  • fever, or shivering, or feeling very cold,
  • extreme pain or discomfort, and.
  • clammy or sweaty skin.
31 Aug 2017

What are symptoms that you should go to the hospital? ›

When to Go to the Hospital
  • Difficulty breathing, shortness of breath.
  • Chest or upper abdominal pain or pressure.
  • Fainting, sudden dizziness or weakness.
  • Changes in vision.
  • Confusion or changes in mental status.
  • Any sudden or severe pain.
  • Uncontrolled bleeding.
  • Severe or persistent vomiting or diarrhea.

What are the early signs of sepsis? ›

These can include:
  • feeling dizzy or faint.
  • a change in mental state – like confusion or disorientation.
  • diarrhoea.
  • nausea and vomiting.
  • slurred speech.
  • severe muscle pain.
  • severe breathlessness.
  • less urine production than normal – for example, not urinating for a day.

What draws out a staph infection? ›

Your doctor will choose an antibiotic for you based on the location of your infection, how serious it is, and, sometimes, the type of staph you have. In some situations, you might be given a combination of several different antibiotics. Some commonly used antibiotics for staph include (5): mupirocin (Bactroban)

Where is staph usually found? ›

Staphylococcus aureus or “staph” is a type of bacteria found on human skin, in the nose, armpit, groin, and other areas. While these germs don't always cause harm, they can make you sick under the right circumstances. S.

Do staph infections usually go away on their own? ›

Staph infections are caused by bacteria called staphylococcus. They most often affect the skin. They can go away on their own, but often they need to be treated with antibiotics.

Are there different levels of staph infection? ›

Staph infections are caused by several different types of staph germs, including: methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus (MRSA) methicillin-susceptible Staphylococcus aureus (MSSA) vancomycin-intermediate Staphylococcus aureus (VISA)

What are 3 symptoms of MRSA? ›

For example, people with MRSA skin infections often can get swelling, warmth, redness, and pain in infected skin.
...
aureus skin infections, including MRSA, appear as a bump or infected area on the skin that might be:
  • red.
  • swollen.
  • painful.
  • warm to the touch.
  • full of pus or other drainage.
  • accompanied by a fever.

How do I know if I need antibiotics? ›

Your doctor may prescribe antibiotics if the symptoms are severe and include high fever along with nasal drainage and a productive cough. Antibiotics may also be necessary if you feel better after a few days and then your symptoms return or if the infection lasts more than a week.

When do I need antibiotics? ›

When do we need antibiotics? Antibiotics are for bacterial infections only. This includes infections such as bloodstream infections, skin abscess/impetigo, bacterial pneumonia, urinary tract infections, streptococcal pharyngitis and some middle ear infections.

How long does it take for antibiotics to start working on a staph infection? ›

Doctors often prescribe antibiotics for 7 to 10 days, although they may be taken for longer periods, depending on how the infection responds. Most people who take antibiotics for a staph infection feel better in two or three days.

How do you know if a bacterial infection is serious? ›

Signs that you may have a bacterial infection and should see doctor include:
  1. difficulty breathing.
  2. a persistent cough, or coughing up pus.
  3. unexplained redness or swelling of the skin.
  4. a persistent fever.
  5. frequent vomiting and trouble holding liquids down.
  6. blood in urine, vomit or poo (stool)

What stage of infection shows the most severe signs and symptoms? ›

Following the prodromal period is the period of illness, during which the signs and symptoms of disease are most obvious, specific and severe.

How do you know if an infection is viral or bacterial? ›

Bacterial infections are caused by bacteria, while viral infections are caused by viruses.
...
Bacterial Infections
  1. Symptoms persist longer than the expected 10-14 days a virus tends to last.
  2. Fever is higher than one might typically expect from a virus.
  3. Fever gets worse a few days into the illness rather than improving.
21 Nov 2019

Does staph need to be reported? ›

Unless previously reported, every licensed health care provider who provides care to any patient who has, is suspected of having, or has died from a reportable disease is required to report.

Can staph spread by touch? ›

Touching skin-to-skin can spread staph from one person to another. Staph can be picked up from surfaces that are often touched, like phones or doorknobs. Sometimes shared personal items, like towels, soap, or sports equipment can spread staph. Pus from an abscess is especially contagious on skin or surfaces.

What infection is worse than staph? ›

Methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus (MRSA) is a bacterium that causes infections in different parts of the body. It's tougher to treat than most strains of staphylococcus aureus -- or staph -- because it's resistant to some commonly used antibiotics.

What is the difference between staph and MRSA? ›

MRSA is a type of staph infection that is resistant to certain antibiotics. The main difference is that an MRSA infection may require different types of antibiotics. MRSA and staph infections have similar symptoms, causes, risk factors, and treatments.

Are most staph infections are serious? ›

Although most staph infections are not serious, S. aureus can cause serious infections such as bloodstream infections, pneumonia, or bone and joint infections.

When should you seek treatment for a staph infection? ›

You should make an appointment with your doctor if you have:
  • Any suspicious area of red or painful skin.
  • A high fever or fever accompanying skin symptoms.
  • Pus-filled blisters.
  • Two or more family members who have been diagnosed with a staph infection.

What's the fastest way to get rid of staph? ›

Antibiotics commonly prescribed to treat staph infections include cefazolin, nafcillin, oxacillin, vancomycin, daptomycin and linezolid.

Is a staph infection very serious? ›

Overview. Staphylococcus aureus (staph) is a germ found on people's skin. Staph can cause serious infections if it gets into the blood and can lead to sepsis or death.

How long does staph last untreated? ›

How long it takes for a staph skin infection to heal depends on the type of infection and whether it's treated. A boil, for example, may take 10 to 20 days to heal without treatment, but treatment may speed up the healing process. Most styes go away on their own within several days.

How long does a staph infection usually last? ›

Food poisoning staph will usually pass within 24–48 hours, but it may take 3 days or longer to feel well. A staph infection at the surface of the skin may heal with just a few days of treatment.

How does a staph infection make you feel? ›

Staph skin infections, including MRSA , generally start as swollen, painful red bumps that might look like pimples or spider bites. The affected area might be: Warm to the touch. Full of pus or other drainage.

Can you recover from staph without antibiotics? ›

Yes. Many staph skin infections may be treated by draining the abscess or boil and may not require antibiotics. Drainage of skin boils or abscesses should only be done by a healthcare provider.

What happens if you dont treat staph? ›

What are the complications associated with a staph infection? If left untreated, staph infections can be deadly. Rarely, staph germs are resistant to the antibiotics commonly used to treat them. This infection, called methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus (MRSA), causes severe infection and death.

How long can staph live on bedding? ›

Symptoms of a Staph infection include redness, warmth, swelling, tenderness of the skin, and boils or blisters. How do Staph skin infections spread? Staph/MRSA lives on the skin and survives on objects for 24 hours or more.

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