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What is MRSA? ­

MRSA stands for Meticillin Resistant Staphylococcus aureus. It is a strain of the Staphylococcus aureus family of bacteria, which cause a number of infections, some of which are serious. The reason that MRSA is such a problem for hospitals and care homes – and why it has become known as a superbug – is that it is resistant to common antibiotics.

MRSA – background and a short history

The Staphylococcus aureus (S. aureus) family of bacteria, to which MRSA belongs, is a very common cause of bacterial infections such as boils, carbuncles, infected wounds, deep abscesses and bloodstream infection (or bacteraemia).

It was first identified in the 1880s when doctors realised it was the most common cause of infected surgical wounds and could cause serious or sometimes fatal disease. When penicillin was introduced in the 1940s, it helped tackle these infections, but after a while some strains of the bacteria began to become resistant to the antibiotic and by 1959, about 90-95% of S.aureus strains isolated from patients with clinical infections were resistant to penicillin.

Meticillin (and, later, cloxacillin and flucloxacillin) was therefore developed, from penicillin, to treat these new strains with some success. Although the first case of MRSA was reported in England within a year of the launch of meticillin, MRSA was relatively uncommon through the 1960s and 1970s, and only a few more cases appeared in the 1980s.

In the mid-1990s, however, 'epidemic' strains of MRSA became established in hospitals throughout the UK. These strains are easily transmissible (passing between and colonising both patients and hospital staff easily) and have the capacity to cause serious disease. When we talk about MRSA, it’s usually these strains that are being referred to.

What does MRSA cause in patients?

There is no specific 'MRSA disease', as there is with tuberculosis or typhoid. Instead, MRSA can infect a range of tissues and body systems, depending on how it entered the body. As a result, patients may have general and ambiguous symptoms that are common to many different infections caused by other bacteria – including other strains of S.aureus bacteria. These can range from potentially fatal infections such as septicaemia to asymptomatic colonisation, where the patient is carrying the MRSA bacteria but has no symptoms.

How do people get MRSA?

MRSA is usually spread by touch. If a person gets MRSA on their hands, they can pass it to people and things that they touch. It may then be picked up and passed on to others. Being in contact with MRSA does not always lead to infection.

How can you tell if someone has MRSA?

People who carry MRSA do not look or feel different from anyone else and they do not have any symptoms.

Patients who have an infection caused by MRSA may have signs and symptoms of infection. They develop a high temperature, or a fever, or their wound becomes red and sore and discharges pus. Many other germs can cause these signs and symptoms. Laboratory tests are carried out to find out which germs are causing infection.

What happens when a patient gets MRSA?

MRSA can spread to other patients. Hospital staff need to take special precautions with patients who have MRSA in order to stop it spreading. Policies for treating patients who carry MRSA or who have an MRSA infection vary according to the local situation and the individual patients affected.

Simple hygiene measures reduce the risk of spreading MRSA

  • Everyone should clean their hands before and after touching patients
  • Hands can be cleaned with soap and water, or an alcohol gel.
  • Staff will wear gloves and aprons when they care for a patient who has MRSA
  • A patient who has MRSA may be moved to a room on their own or into a separate area for people who have MRSA or other infections


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