Staph (pronounced staff) is short for Staphylococcus. Staph is a type of germ (bacteria) that can cause infections almost anywhere in the body.
One type of staph germ, called methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus (MRSA), is harder to treat. This is because MRSA is not killed by certain medicines (antibiotics) used to treat other staph germs.
How Does Staph Spread?
Many healthy people normally have staph on their skin, in their noses, or other body areas. Most of the time, the germ does not cause an infection or symptoms. This is called being colonized with staph. These people are staph carriers and can spread it to others. Some people colonized by staph develop an actual staph infection that makes them sick.
Most staph germs are spread by skin-to-skin contact. They can also be spread when you touch something that has the staph germ on it, such as clothing or a towel. Staph germs can then enter a break in the skin, such as cuts, scratches, or pimples. Usually the infection is minor and stays in the skin. But the infection can spread deeper and affect the blood, bones, or joints. Organs such as the lungs, heart, or brain can also be affected. Serious cases can be life threatening.
What are the Risk Factors for Staph Infection?
You are more likely to get a staph infection if you:
- Have an open cut or sore
- Inject medicines or illegal drugs
- Have a medical tube such as urinary catheter or feeding tube
- Have a medical device inside your body such as an artificial joint
- Have a weakened immune system or ongoing (chronic) illness
- Live with or have close contact with a person who has staph
- Play contact sports or share athletic equipment
- Share items such as towels, razors, or cosmetics with others
- Recently stayed in a hospital or long-term care facility
How Do You Know If You Have a Staph Infection?
Symptoms depend on where the infection is located. For example, with a skin infection you may have a boil or a painful rash called impetigo. With a serious infection, such as toxic shock syndrome, you may have a high fever, nausea and vomiting, and a sunburn-like rash.
The only way to know for sure if you have a staph infection is by seeing your health care provider.
- A cotton swab is used to collect a sample from an open skin rash or skin sore.
- A blood, urine, or sputum sample may also be collected.
- The sample is sent to a lab to test for staph. If staph is found, it will be tested to see which antibiotic should be used to treat your infection, if treatment is necessary.
If test results show you have a staph infection, treatment may include:
- Cleaning and draining the wound
- Using antibiotics on your skin or taking them by mouth or injection
- Surgery to remove an infected device
Preventing Staph Infection
Follow these steps to avoid a staph infection and prevent it from spreading.
- Keep your hands clean by washing them thoroughly with soap and water. Or use an alcohol-based hand sanitizer.
- Keep cuts and scrapes clean and covered with bandages until they heal.
- Avoid contact with other people's wounds or bandages.
- Do not share personal items such as towels, clothing, or cosmetics.
Simple steps for athletes include:
- Cover wounds with a clean bandage. Do not touch other people's bandages.
- Wash your hands well before and after playing sports.
- Shower right after exercising. Do not share soap, razors, or towels.
- If you share sports equipment, clean it first with antiseptic solution or wipes. Use clothing or a towel between your skin and the equipment.
- Do not use a common whirlpool or sauna if another person with an open sore used it. Always use clothing or a towel as a barrier.
- Do not share splints, bandages, or braces.
- Check that shared shower facilities are clean. If they are not clean, shower at home.
Staphylococcus infections - self-care at home; Methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus infections - self-care at home; MRSA infections - self-care at home
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention website. Vital signs: Staph infections can kill. www.cdc.gov/vitalsigns/staph/index.html. Updated March 22, 2019. Accessed July 8, 2023.
Chambers HF, Sakoulas G. Staphylococcal infections. In: Goldman L, Schafer AI, eds. Goldman-Cecil Medicine. 26th ed. Philadelphia, PA: Elsevier; 2020:chap 272.
Rupp ME, Fey PD. Staphylococcus epidermidis and other coagulase-negative staphylococci. In: Bennett JE, Dolin R, Blaser MJ, eds. Mandell, Douglas, and Bennett's Principles and Practice of Infectious Diseases. 9th ed. Philadelphia, PA: Elsevier; 2020:chap 195.
Review Date 7/8/2023
Updated by: Linda J. Vorvick, MD, Clinical Professor, Department of Family Medicine, UW Medicine, School of Medicine, University of Washington, Seattle, WA. Also reviewed by David C. Dugdale, MD, Medical Director, Brenda Conaway, Editorial Director, and the A.D.A.M. Editorial team.