Methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus (MRSA) are a group of bacteria that are resistant to commonly used penicillin-like antibiotics. This means that infections caused by MRSA bacteria can be more difficult to treat. Good hand hygiene is the most important way to prevent the spread of these bacteria.
What is MRSA?
Staphylococcus aureus (commonly called Staph) is a common bug or bacteria that is found on the skin and in the nostrils of about 1 in every 3 people. The bacteria usually live harmlessly without causing you to become ill and you don't require treatment for them. However, if these bacteria get into a wound or open cut, they can cause infections that range from boils on your skin to more severe infections of your bones, lungs and blood. These need treatment with antibiotics.
Methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus (MRSA) are a group of Staph bacteria that have become resistant to commonly used penicillin-like antibiotics. This means that infections caused by MRSA bacteria require different antibiotics and can be more difficult to treat. Read more about antibiotic resistance.
Having MRSA is of particular concern in hospitals where there is a greater chance of bugs (bacteria) entering your body because of openings to your skin caused by operations, procedures and drips (intravenous lines). This puts you at risk of developing severe infections.
How is MRSA spread?
MRSA is spread is easily spread through contact, so if people have MRSA on their hands, they can pass it on to other people or objects they touch. In the hospital, MRSA can be passed to patients directly from the unclean hands of healthcare workers or visitors, or it can be spread when patients contact contaminated bed linens, bed rails and medical equipment.
Who is at risk of getting MRSA?
You are at increased risk of picking up MRSA if:
- you are in hospital, especially if you have been in hospital for some time – some wards in the hospital (eg, intensive care units) have higher rates of MRSA than others
- your immune system is weakened and you are very ill
- you have wounds or open sores (eg, pressure sores or burns).
MRSA can also cause infections in people outside hospital but much less commonly than in people in hopsital. This is known as community-acquired MRSA. It is particularly seen in nursing and residential homes.
How do I know if I have MRSA?
When you are admitted to hospital a nurse may take a swab from your nose or any wounds that you may have. These are sent to the laboratory to assess whether you have MRSA. This process is called screening.
What do I do if I have MRSA?
If you are found to have MRSA during your stay in hospital, even if you do not have an infection, precautions will be taken to reduce the risk of spreading it to other patients.
- You may be moved to a single room. You can come out of your room but must wash your hands or use the alcohol hand gel provided before leaving your room and any wounds you have must be covered with a waterproof dressing.
- Hospital staff may wear gloves and gowns or aprons when caring for you.
- Your room may have a sign on the door so staff and visitors know that additional precautions are needed.
- Your room and the equipment used in your room will be cleaned and disinfected regularly.
- Everybody leaving the room must wash their hands or use the alcohol hand gel provided.
Having MRSA will not affect your discharge home. You can go home as soon as your doctor says you are ready.
Good hand hygiene is the most important way to prevent the spread of MRSA within hospitals. Wash your hands with soap and water or rub your hands with an alcohol hand gel regularly. Read more about hygiene and hand washing.
What about family and visitors?
Family and friends including children and pregnant women can visit you and have close contact such as hugging, kissing and holding hands. It is important that they wash their hands with soap and water or rub their hands with an alcohol hand gel before leaving your room.
What about antibiotic treatment?
If you have an infection caused by MRSA, the choice of antibiotic is limited, as only some antibiotics will work. An appropriate antibiotic will be chosen. This may need to be given directly into a vein.
What about future hospital admissions?
At future hospital admissions, you may be checked again for the presence of MRSA. MRSA may go away but some people can have the bug for a long time. It is likely that you will be managed in the same way, as if you are still carrying the bug on your skin or in your nostrils.
What precautions should I follow at home?
When you leave hospital you can carry on your usual activities. The presence of MRSA is not a risk to the health of your family and friends when you are at home or at work. The best way to prevent the spread of MRSA to others in your household is by good hand hygiene. Also, avoid sharing towels and face towels with other family members.
The following links provide further information about MRSA. Be aware that websites from other countries may have information that differs from New Zealand recommendations.
MRSA Patient Info, UK
Upfront: Is the cupboard bare? The threat of antimicrobial resistance BPAC, NZ, 2013
Guidelines for the control of methicillin-resistant Staphyloccus aureus in New Zealand, Ministry of Health, NZ, 2002