Staph infections: How they spread in hospitals and how to avoid them

6 ways to lower staph infection risk, according to the Mayo Clinic

For nurses working in hospitals, staph infections can pose a danger to patients as well as themselves.

A staph infection is caused by Staphylococcus aureus, a type of bacteria. According to the Merck Manuals, this bacteria is present in the noses of about 30 percent of healthy adults and on the skin of about 20 percent. Percentages are higher for people who work in hospitals and for hospital patients.

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Although the bacteria doesn't usually cause much harm, an infection can be potentially serious, particularly in healthcare settings.

In some cases, staph infections may be classified as MRSA, which means they're resistant to commonly used antibiotics.

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How do staph infections spread in hospitals?

Staph germs are usually spread by skin-to-skin contact. Medical personnel, patients and visitors can spread them in the following ways, according to the National Library of Medicine:

  • A medical provider doesn't have a staph infection but has the bacteria on his or her skin.
  • A medical provider touches a patient or other person who has a staph infection.
  • A patient or other person coming to the hospital may have a staph infection and not even know it.
  • A person touches an object that has staph germs on it, such as a sink. (This is less likely than other ways in which the infection is spread).

A hospital also has patients who are at higher than average risk of developing a staph infection. According to the Atlanta-based Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, this includes those with chronic health conditions such as cancer, diabetes and lung disease. Patients with weakened immune systems are also more vulnerable to infection. Those who have undergone surgery or have medical tubing – including urinary or intravascular catheters, breathing tubes or dialysis tubes – are also more likely to get staph infections because an opening in the skin can allow it to invade the body.

How can staph infections harm your health or that of your patients?

In some cases, staph infections can be treated with antibiotics. But according to the CDC, infections may lead to serious health consequences, such as:

Sepsis – when bacteria spread to the bloodstream

Pneumonia – usually affects patients with underlying lung disease

Endocarditis – infection of the heart valves that can lead to heart failure or stroke

Osteomyelitis – a bone infection caused by staph bacteria in the bloodstream or as the result of trauma like a puncture wound

How can you avoid spreading or acquiring staph infections?

The following tips from the Library of Medicine may help nurses and other healthcare workers lower their risk of getting or spreading a staph infection:

  • Wash your hands thoroughly before and after touching each patient.
  • Wear protective clothing when you treat wounds, touch IVs and catheters or handle bodily fluids.
  • Follow proper sterile techniques for your work area and tools.
  • Clean up properly after surgeries, bandage changes, procedures and spills.
  • Check for signs that a wound has become infected.

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