This past October, The Journal of the American Medical Association published an alarming study: MRSA (methicillin-resistant staphylococcus aureus)—a staph infection resistant to such popular antibiotics as penicillin and amoxicillin—killed more than 18,000 Americans in 2005. Although most cases occurred in hospitals and nursing homes, the drug-resistant bacteria have also been showing up across the country, among athletes and in settings such as schools and gyms, causing numerous deaths.
MRSA is not new to the HIV community. Over the years, studies have warned that it affects positive people more often than negative and most commonly hits those with advanced HIV and lower CD4 counts. But don’t panic: MRSA is treatable with antibiotics. According to a 2005 study, taking HIV meds reduces your risk by 40 percent. But the most effective defense is to recognize and treat a staph infection early; the bug has lethal power when it spreads unchecked.
It’s short for staph-ylococcus aureus, a group of common bacteria. About 25 to 30 percent of people carry some form of staph—often inside the nose. Not all staph produces actual infections, which range from minor skin ailments like bumps or boils to more serious, invasive ones—pneumonia or bloodstream and surgical-wound infections. Normally, staph can be treated with a range of common antibiotics.
HA-MRSA (hospital-associated MRSA)
This is a resistant strain of staph that occurs in hospitals, nursing homes and other health care facilities. It’s hardier than nonresistant staph but can be treated with certain antibiotics.
CA-MRSA (community-associated MRSA)
It’s MRSA contracted outside hospital settings—often in crowded places like schools, gyms or prisons. CA-MRSA signs may include especially painful and persistent pimples, boils, red swollen skin and oozing sores or abscesses.
All staph strains, whether drug-resistant or not, thrive in warm, moist places and spread through skin-to-skin contact (including sex). Staph infections are common among athletes who share equipment and get lots of scrapes and cuts.
- Shower or bathe regularly; wear clean clothes.
- Wash hands frequently with soap or alcohol-based sanitizer.
- And don’t forget the moisturizer: Dry skin is prone to cracking, leaving you prone to infection.
- Keep cuts and scrapes clean and bandaged.
- Don’t share towels or razors.
- If you help someone dress a wound or sore, wear protective gloves.
- At the gym, wipe off fitness machines before and after use, cover mats with clean towels, and shower immediately after working out.
- Don’t drain or squeeze sores or serious pimples yourself. If they harbor staph, you’ll just be spreading it.
- And finally, the ick factor: Don’t pick your nose.
- If you have a boil, sore or similar infection, ask your doctor to culture it. The results will indicate whether you need antibiotics for ordinary staph or for MRSA.
- If your doctor prescribes antibio-tics, make sure they can be taken in conjunction with your HIV meds. And also make sure you finish the entire prescription of antibiotics as directed—even if you begin feeling better—to avoid playing host to a staph comeback.