What You Need to Know About Staph

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Michael Prince / Corbis

You've heard or read the headlines: that methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus (MRSA) is deadlier than AIDS; that the killer bug is alarmingly more widespread than anyone thought; that it's in your kids' locker rooms and at your gym. Stories abound of young high-school athletes becoming infected with MRSA and dying within weeks, and you're starting to worry about whether that nick or scrape you just got could be your last.

So here's what you really need to know. Yes, the latest study conducted by the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) and published in the Journal of the American Medical Association found that MRSA is more prevalent than any previous estimates had suggested. In the CDC's survey of nine states in 2005, there were 32 cases of MRSA infection for every 100,000 people. (By comparison, in that same year, the incidence of invasive pneumonia or flu infections ranged from less than one to 14 cases per 100,000 people.) Extrapolating from these states' statistics, the researchers estimated that there were 94,300 cases of MRSA in the entire U.S. in 2005, with 18,600 deaths. The majority of these cases — 85% of them — occurred in health care settings, such as in hospitals and nursing homes. Disturbingly, however, 14% occurred in normal community environments, in people with no recent contact with the health care system. The staph strains responsible for these infections, experts speculate, may be more aggressive, and potentially deadlier, than strains circulating in hospitals, in part because infections that are acquired in health care settings are discovered and treated more quickly.

Still, it's important to remember that these bacteria can be treated with antibiotics — as long as the right antibiotics are used. By definition, these strains of staph will not respond to methicillin, but with culturing, physicians should be able to control MRSA infections with other classes of antibiotics. And, in general, in otherwise healthy people, staph infections are treatable and rarely fatal.

While the numbers may seem scary, this is the first time scientists have taken stock of the prevalence of MRSA in the U.S. "We are not interpreting these numbers as a rise in MRSA, because nothing like this has ever been done before," says Monina Klevens, a medical epidemiologist at CDC and lead author of the study. "It's a baseline against which we can compare future numbers. With the increased concern about community outbreaks of MRSA, we wanted to know how widespread the infections are."

MRSA that occurs outside the hospital setting often looks innocuous at first — you may see pimples, swollen skin and a rash, and you may develop a fever. If you're concerned about whether you've been exposed to MRSA, take precautions to keep your wound covered so you don't transmit the bacteria to others, and see your doctor immediately. But remember that staph is not a death sentence — with the right antibiotics, it can be treated.