Methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus (MRSA) infection is caused by a type of staph bacteria that’s become resistant to many of the antibiotics used to treat ordinary staph infections.

Most MRSA infections occur in people who’ve been in hospitals or other health care settings, such as nursing homes and dialysis centers. When it occurs in these settings, it’s known as health care-associated MRSA (HA-MRSA). HA-MRSA infections typically are associated with invasive procedures or devices, such as surgeries, intravenous tubing or artificial joints.

Another type of MRSA infection has occurred in the wider community — among healthy people. This form, community-associated MRSA (CA-MRSA), often begins as a painful skin boil. It’s spread by skin-to-skin contact. At-risk populations include groups such as high school wrestlers, child care workers and people who live in crowded conditions.

Staph skin infections, including MRSA, generally start as swollen, painful red bumps that might resemble pimples or spider bites. The affected area might be:

Warm to the touch
Full of pus or other drainage
Accompanied by a fever
These can quickly turn into deep, painful abscesses that require surgical draining. Sometimes the bacteria remain confined to the skin. But they can also burrow deep into the body, causing potentially life-threatening infections in bones, joints, surgical wounds, the bloodstream, heart valves and lungs.

When to see a doctor

Keep an eye on minor skin problems — pimples, insect bites, cuts and scrapes — especially in children. If wounds appear infected or are accompanied by a fever, see your doctor.

Different varieties of Staphylococcus aureus bacteria, commonly called “staph,” exist. Staph bacteria are normally found on the skin or in the nose of about one-third of the population. The bacteria are generally harmless unless they enter the body through a cut or other wound, and even then they usually cause only minor skin problems in healthy people.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, less than 2 percent of the population chronically carries the type of staph bacteria known as MRSA.

Antibiotic resistance

MRSA is the result of decades of often unnecessary antibiotic use. For years, antibiotics have been prescribed for colds, flu and other viral infections that don’t respond to these drugs. Even when antibiotics are used appropriately, they contribute to the rise of drug-resistant bacteria because they don’t destroy every germ they target. Bacteria live on an evolutionary fast track, so germs that survive treatment with one antibiotic soon learn to resist others.

Dr. Lawrence Jaeger is a board certified dermatologist who has a practice in New York. Dr Lawrence Jaeger specializes in the treatment of all skin, hair and nail disorders including all skin growths.