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April 15th, 2010
11:55 AM ET

How dangerous is MRSA?

As a feature of CNNhealth.com, our team of expert doctors will answer readers' questions. Here's a question for Dr. Gupta.

From Kathleen

“If a person was found to have MRSA cluster in the nose while in the hospital but not given anything for it, how dangerous is it to be around this person and for how long? I was wondering why they didn't give her the antibiotic for it – everything I read on line seems to lean towards MRSA as a ‘forever’ thing. Please help us to know the facts – I worry about my two very young grandchildren catching it if I get it. Thank you so much!”

Answer:

It is tough to give a definitive answer to your question, Kathleen, without knowing more about why the culture was done and whether there were signs of an actual MRSA infection. To help answer your question, a little background about MRSA might help.

MRSA stands for methicillin-resistant staphylcoccus aureus.

"Staph aureus is ubiquitous, it is everywhere," said Dr. Gregory Moran, of the Division of Infectious Diseases at Olive View-UCLA Medical Center.

Staph bacteria are very common and do not pose a big threat to most healthy people. In fact, we are exposed to staph on a daily basis. About one-third of us are walking around right now with the bacteria in our nose, and it is not affecting our health, according to Moran.

Keep in mind that there are different strains of MRSA out there. Your concern may stem from the more aggressive strains of MRSA we hear about in community settings – the strains that have proven fatal for some in prisons or among athletes. Those MRSA strains are genetically more toxic than what is typically encountered in hospitals, in addition to being resistant to some of the antibiotics we have to fight them. They most often cause skin infections, but in rare cases the bacteria can penetrate to internal organs, causing an otherwise healthy person to become very ill, and in some cases die.

Hospital-acquired MRSA strains are less dangerous to healthy individuals, but testing for them is common to avoid spreading infection among hospitalized patients with weakened immune systems or during operations. The strain of MRSA that was most likely found in this hospitalized patient would not be expected to cause problems at home. A non-aggressive strain usually would not require an antibiotic, and usually is not dangerous to healthy people.

And that brings us back to the most critical part of your question, Kathleen. Will this MRSA strain detected at the hospital harm your grandchildren? The likelihood is extremely low, however, be on the alert for the telltale first sign of a MRSA infection: a painful skin lesion resembling a pimple or a spider bite. If it crops up for you or your grandchildren, go see your doctor.


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