Staph infections are caused by Staphylococcus aureus bacteria. Many healthy people carry these bacteria on their skin and in their noses without getting sick. But when skin is punctured or broken, staph bacteria can enter the wound and cause infections, which can lead to other health problems.
You can help prevent staph infections in your family by encouraging regular hand washing and daily bathing, and by keeping injured skin clean and covered.
How Staph Infections Spread
Staph bacteria can spread through contaminated surfaces and from person to person. Kids can carry staph bacteria from one area of their body to another — or pass it to other people — via dirty hands or fingernails. So good hand washing is vital to preventing staph infections.
It's also important to encourage kids to keep their skin clean with a daily bath or shower. If your child has a skin condition such as eczema that makes regular bathing difficult, ask your doctor for advice.
Make sure to keep areas of injured skin — such as cuts, scrapes, and rashes caused by allergic reactions or poison ivy — clean and covered, and follow any directions given by your doctor.
Folliculitis is an infection of hair follicles, tiny pockets under the skin where hair shafts (strands) grow. In folliculitis, tiny white-headed pimples appear at the base of hair shafts, sometimes with a small red area around each pimple. This infection often happens in areas where there's been friction or irritation, such as with shaving.
Folliculitis often clears up on its own with good skin care. But sometimes it goes on to become a boil (also called a furuncle). With a boil, the staph infection spreads deeper and wider, often affecting the subcutaneous tissue (deeper tissue under the skin) and oil-producing glands (called sebaceous glands).
In the first stage, which parents and kids often miss, the area of skin either begins to itch or becomes mildly painful. Next, the skin turns red and begins to swell over the infected area. Finally, the skin above the infection becomes very tender and a whitish "head" may appear. The head may break, and the boil may begin to drain pus, blood, or an amber-colored liquid. Boils can occur anywhere on the skin, especially under the arms or on the groin or buttocks in kids.
To help relieve pain from a boil, try warm-water soaks, a heating pad, or a hot-water bottle applied to the skin for about 20 minutes, three or four times a day. Make sure that the washcloths used for the soaks are washed after each use. Boils are occasionally treated with oral antibiotics and in some cases need to be surgically drained.
Impetigo can affect skin anywhere on the body but commonly occurs around the nose and mouth. It usually affects preschoolers and school-age kids, especially in the summer months.
In impetigo, staph bacteria cause the skin to have large blisters. The fluid in the blisters starts out clear, then turns cloudy. The blisters may burst, ooze fluid, and develop a honey-colored crust. Impetigo may itch and can be spread by scratching.
Doctors usually prescribe a skin ointment to treat impetigo. Depending on how severe the symptoms are, oral (taken by mouth) antibiotics also might be prescribed.
You may have heard about methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus (MRSA), a type of staph bacteria with a resistance to the antibiotics that are used treat staph infections. Although MRSA infections can be harder to treat, in most cases they heal with proper care.
Most MRSA infections involve the skin, but sometimes MRSA can cause more serious problems, such as bone infections or pneumonia. MRSA pneumonia is rare, but is more of a risk for kids already sick with the flu.
Scalded Skin Syndrome
Scalded skin syndrome (SSS) most often affects newborns and kids under age 5. The illness usually starts with a small staph skin infection, but the staph bacteria make a toxin that affects skin all over the body. The child has a fever, rash, and sometimes blisters. As blisters burst and the rash passes, the top layer of skin sheds and the skin surface becomes red and raw, like a burn.
SSS is a serious illness that affects the body in the same way as serious burns. It needs to be treated in a hospital. After treatment, most kids make a full recovery.
You can treat most small staph skin infections by:
washing the skin with an antibacterial cleanser
using warm soaks (to keep the infection from spreading, use a towel only once when you soak or clean an area of infected skin, and then wash it)
applying antibiotic ointment, if prescribed by your doctor
covering the skin with a clean dressing or bandage
Your doctor may prescribe an oral antibiotic for your child's staph skin infection. If so, give the antibiotic on schedule for as many days as the doctor directs.
More serious staph infections might need to be treated in a hospital, and an abscess (or pocket of pus) that doesn't respond to home care might need to be drained.
Call the doctor whenever your child has an area of red, irritated, or painful skin, especially if you see whitish pus-filled areas or your child has a fever or feels sick. Also, call your doctor if skin infections seem to be passing from one family member to another or if two or more family members have skin infections at the same time.