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Prevention Is Key 

Fear and awareness of MRSA (methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus) has increased dramatically since a 17-year-old high school student in Virginia died from an infection by the invasive staph. Researchers estimate more than 90,000 Americans will get this potentially deadly infection each year, and approximately 18,000 will die from it.

But don't panic. With some simple hygiene habits you can help prevent a staph infection.

'We really just need to get back to the basics," says Cathy Lopez, a registered nurse and Supervisor of Infection Control at East Jefferson General Hospital. 'Wash your hands, clean athletic equipment before you use it, bathe regularly, use your own towel. We don't need people running around scared, just with a heightened awareness of good hygiene."

Staphylococcus aureus, or 'staph," is a bacteria often carried on the skin or in the nose of healthy people. Approximately 25 to 30 percent of the population is colonized, meaning staph is present, but doesn't cause an infection. When staph does cause infection, it commonly occurs on the skin and can be treated without antibiotics.

MRSA is a type of staph that is resistant to the antibiotic methicillin, as well as more common medicines like oxacillin, penicillin and amoxicillin. MRSA isn't a new phenomenon; it's been recognized for more than 30 years. The majority of MRSA infections are acquired in health-care facilities and affect people with weakened immune systems.

According to a 2003 study, however, 12 percent of MRSA infections are now acquired by healthy people who have not been hospitalized or had a medical procedure in the past year. According to data collected in 2000 and 2001 from the National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey (NHANES), only 1 percent of the population was colonized with MRSA, but more recent studies suggest this percentage may be growing. These studies showed MRSA colonization rates from 3 percent to 22 percent. In contrast to the NHANES data, none of the studies was national in scope.

Staph infections on the skin, including MRSA, may look like a pimple or boil and can be red, swollen, painful or have pus or other drainage. MRSA often is mistaken for an infected spider bite. If you think you may have staph or MRSA, seek help from your health-care provider as soon as possible. These infections can cause pneumonia, bloodstream infections or surgical wound infections.

The Centers for Disease Control recommends these simple ways to avoid a staph or MRSA infection:

Keep your hands clean. Wash thoroughly with soap and water or use an alcohol-based hand sanitizer.

Keep cuts and scrapes covered with a clean, dry bandage until they have healed.

Avoid contact with other people's wounds or bandages.

Avoid sharing personal items such as towels, water bottles or razors. At the gym, wipe down exercise equipment before you use it or put a towel or shirt down to create a barrier between your skin and the equipment.

You can also help to prevent the development of new types of antibiotic-resistant staph and other antibiotic-resistant infections by taking antibiotics properly, which includes taking your entire prescription.

'Make sure to use antibiotics as they have been prescribed to you," Lopez advises. 'These antibiotic-resistant bacteria are in large part the result of antibiotic misuse. Even if you feel better after a few days, it's crucial to take the entire course of antibiotics your doctor has prescribed. Don't share your antibiotics with others or save antibiotics for another time."

Most staph and MRSA infections are treatable and do respond to antibiotics. If you contract a staph or MRSA infection, it is very important to follow all instructions given to you by your physician, not just to get rid of the infection but also to prevent infecting someone else.

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