Known simply as “staph,” staphylococcus bacteria are germs commonly found on the skin or in the noses of healthy people. Most of the time staph is harmless, but it can cause infection when it enters an open wound, such as a cut. There are more than 30 different types of staph bacteria; the type that usually causes infection is called Staphylococcus aureus.
A staph skin infection begins when a cut or other wound gets infected with staph bacteria. Early signs of a skin infection include redness, warmth, swelling, tenderness, and blisters. But staph infections can occur spontaneously in healthy people without a wound. A person can also develop a staph infection after a stem cell or organ transplant.
Staph infections are often limited to a small area of a person’s skin. Symptoms include boils, which are pus-filled lumps; a painful rash called impetigo; and cellulitis, an infection of the deeper layers of the skin that results in redness and swelling.
If a staph infection involves the deeper layers of skin and soft tissues, such as muscles and fat, it can enter the bloodstream and spread to the bones, joints, and organs, causing more serious damage. Staph can release toxins that can cause blood poisoning, which may be life threatening.
Staph can infect anyone at any age, but certain people are at higher risk for developing a serious infection. These include people who:
There are several steps you can take to prevent a staph infection.
If you have a cut or other wound, wash it immediately with soap and water to prevent infection. Antibiotic ointments and other antiseptic products are often not needed. Keep the wound clean and covered with a sterile, dry bandage until it’s fully healed.
If your wound is infected with staph, it should be treated. Covering the wound can help prevent staph bacteria from spreading to other areas of the skin and to other people, since pus containing staph can leak from an infected wound.
In addition to proper wound dressing, careful hand washing can help prevent staph from spreading. Doctors recommend washing your hands with soap and water or using an alcohol-based hand sanitizer, particularly after touching infected areas.
Staph infections can spread from person to person and through objects, such as razors, sheets, clothing, towels, and athletic equipment. The bacteria can survive on clothing and bedding that are not adequately washed as well. It’s best to wash all clothing and bedding, especially if someone in your household has a staph infection, and avoid sharing personal items.
Since staph infections tend to be more common in hospitals and other healthcare facilities than elsewhere, healthcare providers follow strict infection-control guidelines. If you’re visiting someone in a healthcare setting, wash your hands with soap and warm water before and after leaving the room or using the bathroom.
Learn more about our research and professional education opportunities.