Two weeks ago, newspapers and broadcasts dropped a terrifying health bombshell: Last year alone, an antibiotic-resistant staph infection, MRSA (methicillin-resistant staphylococcus aureus), killed more Americans than AIDS. Although a majority of those deaths occurred in hospitals and nursing homes, MRSA, a.k.a. “Superbug,” is now being found in community settings such as schools, gyms and homes. This type of MRSA, community-associated MRSA (CA-MRSA) has recently been blamed for about half a dozen deaths across the country.

To make matters worse, reports suggest that African Americans and people living in urban settings are more likely to contract CA-MRSA. But before you label this the 21st century’s Black Plague, please note that contrary to popular belief, it is treatable. As with most illnesses, knowing what to look for and early diagnosis are key.

RH spoke to Dr. Rachel Gorwitz, a medical epidemiologist from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), to get the facts on CA-MRSA and what you can do to protect yourself and your family.

  • What is staph? Staphylococcus aureus or “staph” is a group of common bacteria located on the skin or in people’s noses; MRSA is a form of staph. “About 30 percent of people carry staph, and only 1 percent of that is MRSA,” Gorwitz explains. “Not all staph turns into an infection.” Staph can cause minor skin infections such as boils or bumps or more serious infections such as bloodstream infections, wound infections and pneumonia.
  • How is CA-MRSA different? First, CA-MRSA is a type of MRSA bacteria that is not acquired from hospitalizations or medical procedure like surgery and dialysis. CA-MRSA and MRSA are tougher to treat because the bacteria have grown resistant to certain antibiotics such as penicillin and amoxicillin. “This is not a new thing,” Gorwitz states. “Although we need antibiotics, when they are overused, resistance happens.”
  • How do I contract it? From contact with infected skin or objects.
  • How can I protect myself? Avoid coming into contact with infected skin or objects. That means: Avoid sharing clothing, towels or razors with other people. Also practice good hygiene, wash your hands frequently with soap, and keep all cuts and scrapes clean and covered. At the health club, lay a towel down on gym mats when taking a class like yoga or Pilates and wipe down equipment before and after use. “Take a shower immediately after exercising at the gym to cut down risk,” she adds.
  • And my kids? “Make sure you talk to them about the same precautions: washing their hands and not sharing clothing and towels,” Gorwitz emphasizes. There is good news: “The overwhelming majority of life-threatening skin infections are less common in children,” she assures.
  • What are the signs? Boils, red swollen skin and puss coming from sores or abscesses.
  • What do I do if I have one of these? If you suspect that you have staph, go to your doctor, and ask him or her to culture your infection. That way your doctor will know whether to give you antibiotics for staph or for MRSA.
  • If I contract CA-MRSA, am I automatically going to die? No. “Your doctor can drain the puss, which helps and they can prescribe some oral antibiotics that can treat this,” Gorwitz asserts. “By calling it the ‘Superbug’ it gives the false perception that no medicines can help, and that isn’t true.”

For more information, listen to the CDC’s podcast about MRSA.