Staph skin infections

Staphylococcus aureus (or ‘staph’) is a kind of germ (bacteria). It is very common, so most people have staph on their skin some of the time.

On this page, you can find the following information:

Staph skin infections are caused by staphylococcus bacteria. Many people carry a lot of different strains of staph bacteria either on the surface of their skin or in their nose, and in most cases they do not cause any problems or may result in relatively minor skin infections.

How do you get a staph skin infection?

Most people have staph on their skin or in their nose some of the time. If your child’s skin has a cut, scrape, insect bite or other wound, the staph bacteria can get in and cause skin infections such as:

  • boils and abscesses: The most common type of staph infection is the boil, a pocket of pus that develops in a hair follicle or oil gland. The skin over the infected area usually becomes red and swollen. If a boil breaks open, it will probably drain pus. Boils occur most often under the arms or around the groin or buttocks.
  • school sores (impetigo): This generally develops as sores on your child's hands and face, especially around their nose and mouth. It can also affect other areas of your body.
  • cellulitis: This is an infection of the deeper layers of skin that causes skin redness and swelling on the surface of your skin. Sores or areas of oozing discharge may develop, too. 

Staph can spread from person to person or from one part of your tamariki’s body to another.

What are the symptoms of staph skin infection?

Check your child’s skin for signs of infection. Does your tamariki have scrapes, insect bites or other wounds that are red, warm or sore?

Staph skin infections may look like:

  • a painful red lump or bump on their skin
  • skin sores that look like big pimples
  • hot, red and swollen skin
  • open sores, crusts or blisters
  • sore red eyelids or eyes.

If your child has eczema, an affected area of skin may become infected with staph. Staph skin infections may also smell bad.

Who is at risk of a staph skin infection?

Anyone can develop a staph skin infection, but some people are more likely to get them. Those who are more likely to develop infections include:

  • children and infants, who may develop an infection known as ‘school sores’ (impetigo) when they start attending daycare, preschool or school
  • people with a weakened immune system, such as those with HIV/AIDS or those taking medicines to suppress their immune systems
  • people who regularly have medical equipment entering their body, such as during kidney dialysis or when using catheters, feeding or breathing tubes
  • people who have been in hospital for a long time, due to their contact with healthcare workers and proximity to other sick people.

When should I see my doctor?

If you think your child has a skin infection, go to your doctor. This is very important if your child has a fever, or if you notice they have a sore or red area that:

  • is larger than a 10-cent coin
  • is red, swollen and getting bigger
  • has pus (yellow liquid)
  • has red streaks coming from it
  • is not getting better after 2 days
  • is anywhere near their eyes, or around a joint, eg, a knee or elbow.

How are staph infections treated?

Your doctor may prescribe an antibiotic medicine and/or a cream for your child’s staph infection. Make sure your tamariki finishes all the medicine, even if they feel better and the infection gets better after a few days.

How to care for your child’s wound

  • Wash the wound with water every day, dry it with a clean towel and cover it with a clean dressing or plaster.
  • Wash the towel in hot water after using it.
  • Wash your hands for at least 20 seconds and dry them well before and after you clean your child’s wound. 
  • Make sure your child doesn’t scratch or touch the wound and doesn’t let anyone else touch it.
  • Teens who get a staph infection on skin areas that are normally shaved should stop shaving until the infection clears up.

If your child has staph skin infections over and over again

Your doctor may also tell you to:

  • bathe your child with an antiseptic
  • put antibiotic ointment on the inside of your child’s nose, and/or
  • give your child a bleach bath.

These treatments can help treat your child's infection, and lower the amount of staph on your child’s skin to reduce the chance of future infections. 

When should I go back to my doctor?

See your doctor again if you are following your doctor’s instructions, but:

  • your child’s infection gets worse
  • your child’s infection doesn’t get better
  • your child gets another infection.

How can I stop a staph skin infection from recurring?

To help stop recurrent staph skin infections, it is good to take some steps to stop staph from spreading.

Have everyone in your home do these things:

  • Clean scratches, insect bites or other wounds and cover them with a plaster.
  • Wash and dry hands well and often, using water and soap or an alcohol-based gel sanitiser. 
  • Keep fingernails clean and short.
  • Don’t share towels, sheets, soaps, clothing, razors, make-up or other personal items.
  • Throw away used razors.
  • Change underwear every day.
  • Have a bath or shower at least once a day.
  • Treat any other skin conditions, such as eczema, psoriasis or athlete's foot (tinea).
  • Make sure towels and clothes are dry before you use them

You should also regularly do these things in your home:

  • Wash towels and sheets regularly in hot water and dry them well, or add a capful of bleach to the wash cycle.
  • Clean bench tops, doorknobs, bathtubs and toilet seats often.
  • Clean all hard surfaces, including bathrooms and floors, with detergent and water.
  • Change towels and sheets once a week.
  • Regularly vacuum carpets, rugs, mattresses and electric blankets.
  • Wash pet bedding regularly, especially dog bedding.
  • Wash and dry your child’s sports clothing after each match.

For more detailed information about preventing repeat staph skin infections, see how to stop recurrent staph infections.

Learn more

The following links provide further information about stopping staph skin infections. Be aware that websites from other countries may have information that differs from New Zealand recommendations.

Bleach baths – how to give your child a bleach bath Plunket, NZ
Staphylococcal infections (staph) Plunket, NZ
Staphylococcal infections The Royal Children’s Hospital Melbourne, Australia
Staph infection NHS, UK
Staph infections Nemours KidsHealth
When and how to use bleach baths for your child with eczema KidsHealth NZ

References

  1. Bleach baths in patients with skin infections Dermnet NZ, 2015
  2. Managing skin infections in Māori and Pacific families BPAC, NZ, 2012
  3. Staphylococcal skin infection DermNet NZ, 2015

Reviewed by

Dr Arna Letica has worked as a GP for over 13 years, with particular interests in women's and children's health. She is currently focusing on non-clinical roles, including working as a medical assessor.
Credits: Health Navigator Editorial Team. Reviewed By: Dr Arna Letica, FRNZCGP, Auckland Last reviewed: 01 Mar 2022