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Staph Infection: Causes, Contagious, Symptoms, Treatment, and Pictures

Dr. Suresh Kumar lives in India and enjoys writing about medical topics.

What Is a Staph Infection?

A staphylococcal infection—commonly referred to as a staph infection—is caused by the Gram-positive bacterial genus Staphylococcus which consists of over 30 species. They are usually benign and are generally found on our skin—in areas around the nose and mouth, armpits, genitals, and anus—with the most abundant species being Staphylococcus aureus. However, they are opportunistic, and when our skin is wounded, broken, or scraped, these bacteria can become virulent.


There are certain populations that have a greater risk of infections because of a weakened immune system. Newborns, breastfeeding women, people with chronic diseases such as cancer, diabetes, and lung disease, and those taking immunosuppressive drugs are just a few examples of people at risk for staph infections. Drug users and those who have just undergone surgery are also more prone. This happens when aseptic techniques are not followed strictly (proper cleaning of the skin and surgical tools to get rid of bacteria).

What Causes Staph Infections?

As mentioned earlier, S. aureus is the most common culprit. They can reproduce very quickly, leading to a rapid progression of infections. They can also produce a toxin that causes food poisoning. S. aureus is very durable and can live through tough conditions. They are mostly found in active places of the body, including the armpits, hair, and scalp but can survive on countertops, door handles, clothing, bedsheets, etc.

Is It Contagious?

The infection can be passed to another person through even the smallest skin breaks. The mode of transmission is generally through contaminated objects and direct, contact with open wounds.

Symptoms of a Staph Infection

S. aureus most commonly infects the skin. You'll know you have an infection when you see:

  • Localized skin abscesses or boils, also known as furuncles that present as swollen, red, painful lumps on the skin. Pus accumulation is to be expected. You can expect this to occur in areas of the face, neck, buttocks, armpits, and inner thighs.
  • Folliculitis, or an infection of the hair follicles. This usually occurs in people who shave too often or have irritated skin from chaffing or rubbing against inanimate objects.
  • Skin is reddened, swollen, and tender. As the infection spreads, cellulitis can form. This involves inflammation of connective tissues under the skin, most commonly on the legs of the patient.
  • Pus is present (draining pus).
  • Sepsis or bacteremia causes a high fever and low blood pressure. If the infection spreads to the bloodstream, it can cause severe damage, ranging from high fevers to multiple organ failures. This is very serious and needs emergency medical attention.

Staph infection of the skin can also cause

  • Impetigo: This is a common illness in children but can also be acquired by adults through S. aureus. Crusting of the skin, blisters, and scabbing are all indicative of impetigo.
  • Osteomyelitis (bone infection): S. aureus can reach the bones through the bloodstream, resulting in severe inflammation of the bones.
  • Septic arthritis: Another severe consequence of the infection reaching the bloodstream. This causes rapid deterioration of the joints.
  • Acute infective endocarditis: This is a life-threatening condition that can cause extensive damage to the heart.
  • Septicemia: Commonly known as blood poisoning; it can cause systemic shock and circulatory failure.
  • Pneumonia: Once in the bloodstream, infection of the lungs cannot be avoided and can progress to pneumonia.
  • Gastroenteritis: The symptoms are similar to those of food poisoning. If left untreated, it can lead to dehydration.
  • Scalded skin syndrome (Ritter's disease): This is one of the most common complications of staph infections. It manifests as widespread, fluid-filled blisters that are easily ruptured.

Treatment and Prevention


Antibiotics such as nafcillin, cefazolin, dicloxacillin, clindamycin, and Bactrim are commonly prescribed as staph infection treatments. It is important to take them consistently and follow your doctor's instructions faithfully. Improper use can lead to antibiotic resistance, a growing concern, especially in medical facilities and nursing homes.

Methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus (MRSA) is a form of staph infection that is much harder to treat. Mupirocin (Bactroban) has been effective in the treatment of MRSA. In serious cases of MRSA, combinations of antibiotics may be used.

Bathing with the use of antibacterial soap or cleanser can reduce skin infection. Covering the wound with a clean dressing is necessary.

In order to relieve any associated pain, pain relievers are recommended until the infection gets better. Application of a heating pad for 10-20 mins at a time can also help reduce pain.

Surgical intervention isn't necessary unless the infection becomes systemic (e.g. osteomyelitis) or to drain pus from large blisters to prevent further complications.


Vaccinations for staph infections have not been developed. In this case, the best treatment is prevention. This starts with awareness of the risk factors.

  • Know the people around you. If you are exposed to people who have a staph infection, you should wash your hands frequently and avoid sharing items (e.g. food, clothing, pens, etc.).
  • Medical professionals should always wear clean, protective clothing and thoroughly clean instruments using aseptic techniques.
  • Take proper care of any wounds. Keep the skin clean and dry.
  • If you are infected, practice good hygiene, see your doctor immediately, and avoid coming into contact with other people.

This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and does not substitute for diagnosis, prognosis, treatment, prescription, and/or dietary advice from a licensed health professional. Drugs, supplements, and natural remedies may have dangerous side effects. If pregnant or nursing, consult with a qualified provider on an individual basis. Seek immediate help if you are experiencing a medical emergency.


Christine on September 14, 2014: are now a carrier of staph...why would you leave your relationship and go infect someone else? Your comment seems quite silly.

Most people have it and don't know till there immune system is weakened...strengthen your immune system....and warn your new partner that you left you ex because of staph that you now hopefully they won't be as silly as you

vic on May 05, 2014:

Im a diabetic. ..I done had staph outbreaks in like 10 different occasions but m different areas of my body so painful

Dee on February 08, 2014:

I am in a relationship with someone that carries staph and has spread to me many times over the yrs...just broke out yesterday. I'm going to have to leave this relationship.

Barbara Badder from USA on September 23, 2013:

This was interesting, but I didn't know the infection was so wide spread.