How do I know if I have MRSA?

Of course one of the biggest (and most relevant) MRSA questions asked by the general public is: “How do I know if I have MRSA?”.

Unfortunately, as I detailed in my last post “colonization vs. infection” the reality is you may already be carrying the superbug without even knowing it. If you are colonized at one or more body sites, the only way you’re going to be able to tell is by having a doctor or nurse take surface swab samples from your skin. These samples will be examined by a clinical microbiology lab using established techniques to detect the presence of MRSA and other potential pathogens. Usually, the only opportunity most people will get to find out if they are asymptomatically carrying MRSA is upon admission to the hospital for some type of invasive medical procedure. In that situation the risk of infecting yourself or someone else is simply too high to not check for the presence of antibiotic resistant bacteria in and on your skin. Even knowing the risk, however, many North American hospitals continue to resist active MRSA screening of patients due to perceived cost and time burdens. More on the importance of screening for MRSA colonization coming in a future post…

In contrast, an active MRSA infection will thankfully be much easier to detect. Wounds, cuts, and other lesions are especially at risk and the usual signs of infection (redness, swelling, excessive pain) will be clues that something isn’t right. The unexpected formation of painful boils or marks that may look like insect bites but expand into more serious lesions may also indicate an active MRSA infection. If they are identified early enough, these types of topical/skin infections can often be treated by your doctor using cleaning, drainage, and sometimes antibiotics that MRSA has not developed resistance against. Deeper, more progressive MRSA infected skin lesions will likely require surgical intervention with the use of the most powerful last line antibiotics available to modern medicine. MRSA infections that are allowed to spread internally into your various organs become much more serious. MRSA bacteremia, which is caused when the bacteria enters your bloodstream and is essentially carried throughout the body, are potentially deadly and must be treated very quickly and aggressively in a hospital. MRSA bacteremias can strike the sick or elderly quite quickly, but otherwise healthy individuals will usually experience the symptoms of a more minor infection before things get too out of hand. Very importantly, if you have developed painful swollen skin lesions that are not immediately explainable – get them checked out by your doctor! If you are also starting to experience extreme soreness, fever, and faintness better think about a trip to the ER just in case…

 It’s true that the majority of MRSA infections happen within the hospital to people who are more susceptible for any number of reasons. Increasingly though, these infections are being seen in the community and in otherwise healthy individuals who become exposed through minor injury or other mechanisms. If you think you or your family are at risk its best to stay vigilant, and never let a potential infection progress without treatment after its been identified.

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