Staphylococcus aureus, which is often referred to as “staph” is a type of bacteria that many healthy people have on their skin and in their nose. This bacteria often does not cause any harm, but it can enter the skin through sores, cuts and scratches leading to an infection. In most cases, the infection presents as a boil that may have drainage or pus coming from it. For most people, a simple visit to the doctor to have the site drained gets rid of the infection. However, for those in nursing homes, the problem often becomes much more severe and dangerous.
Staph infections in nursing homes are often MRSA, or Methicillin-resistant S. aureus. This strain of the bacteria is resistant to a wide range of antibiotics, making it difficult to treat. The bigger problem, however, is that the elderly, especially those in nursing homes, have weaker immune systems, underlying health conditions, and many have been exposed to numerous antibiotics throughout their lives. This combination not only makes it easy to contract staph infection, it often leads to MRSA.
MRSA is spread by coming into contact with items such as sheets, clothes, fixtures, and dressings that have been in contact with the infected person’s skin. The relative ease with which it spreads also creates problems in nursing homes, as the infection can cause serious health problems. Just like staph infection, MRSA enters the body through cuts or sores on the body, as well as through the use of catheters and other medical devices.
Staph and MRSA can both present as red, painful areas on the skin, or as spots that look like pimples or boils. If it progresses beyond this, the infection can go deep into the tissues, and can even cause blood, tissue and bone infections that can require removal of the skin in the affected area. The bacteria can also enter the bloodstream, where it can cause bacterial pneumonia, and the urinary tract, where it can cause kidney failure.
Staph infection can also cause food poisoning, toxic shock syndrome, cellulitis and other diseases. For those in nursing homes, these additional illnesses can cause even more problems and more danger. If the bacteria does enter the bloodstream, the patient may also suffer from sepsis, which will result in low blood pressure, chills and high fever. It can also lead to endocarditis, which frequently causes heart failure
When the staph infection is localized to the skin, topical antibiotics and draining of the abscess can often beat the infection. Those with more serious infections often require intravenous antibiotics, as well as other treatments depending on other illnesses and conditions caused by the staph infection. In the most severe cases, oxygen therapy and up to six weeks of IV antibiotics may be required.
When a patient in a nursing home has staph or MRSA, special precautions are necessary to prevent the infection from spreading to other residents. These precautions often include isolating the patient until they have had three negative cultures after treatment. During the treatment process, nursing home staff and visitors will be required to wear masks, gowns and gloves when in contact with the person. These protections will be removed prior to the person leaving the room to further minimize the threat of carrying the bacteria out of the room.
While most people can overcome staph infection fairly easily, nursing home residents have a much harder time with the illness. In some cases, the additional infections can lead to death in those with severely compromised immune systems, which is why this illness is such a concern in these settings.