Before my encounter with Methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus , commonly called MRSA, the mere mention of that acronym struck fear in my heart. I’d read dramatic news articles about this dangerous bacteria strain several years ago that gave the impression exposure was akin to a death sentence. Fortunately, this impression was incorrect.
MRSA has long been known as a hospital infection. As reported by Nature, recent research shows MRSA’s spread is actually nondiscriminatory. You can acquire it from public spaces and homes as well as hospitals. My exposure took place in a hospital, although I wasn’t a patient. I accompanied my husband to the Emergency Room one night after he’d had a cancerous lesion removed from his forehead. His immediate concern was bleeding, but we made a point to tell every hospital employee we spoke with he was suffering from metastasized cancer. In other words, he was immune-compromised and at risk of infection. None of our precautionary words kept the ER staff from leading us into an exam room contaminated with MRSA. In the middle of the vital signs check that preceded the consultation with a doctor, a hospital worker popped her head in the room to inform us we weren’t supposed to be there; the room was contaminated.
My husband and I jumped up and exited immediately. My husband’s cancer prognosis at this point was close to terminal. We didn’t know how much time he had, but we feared this MRSA exposure would shorten his time and potentially kill me, too, orphaning our children. One complication for me was allergy to penicillin and at least one of its substitutes.
The hospital failed to provide us any information about our MRSA contraction risk or signs and symptoms. When we got home, I researched MRSA immediately, even though it was past midnight. I learned that two to 10 percent of the U.S. population is colonized with MRSA, meaning the bacteria is present but they show no signs of illness. While MRSA can cause infection in anyone, the risks are higher for people age 65 and older, MRSA Survivors Network says, as well as those with serious illnesses. Other high risk groups include dialysis and nursing home patients, the homeless, inmates, surgical patients receiving implants, and persons who have been hospitalized or who have been colonized with or suffered prior MRSA infections. This confirmed our concerns about my husband’s increased risk. I noted with relief that I was not in a high risk group.
The Long Haul
Statistics on MRSA are inadequate, as USA Today noted in a 2013 overview. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention track only cases that result in life-threatening infection, USA Today said. The Virginia Health Department advises a person can carry the bug for a long time before getting sick, making it difficult to trace the source of infection. The typical route of exposure is through skin contact, the New York Health Department notes. Other than practicing good hygiene to ensure MRSA doesn’t enter the skin through cuts or spread to others, there is no treatment recommended for MRSA exposure in the absence of signs of infection.
It’s important to be on the lookout for signs of infection, described by MRSA Survivors Network as skin redness, warmth, swelling, and tenderness; boils; blisters; chills; fever; nausea; acute pain; or lethargy. If minor infections develop, home treatment is usually effective. Health authorities recommend medical intervention if a wound doesn’t heal or is draining. Serious cases, surgical or bloodstream infections and pneumonia, require aggressive medical treatment, often including hospitalization and intravenous antibiotics, the Virginia Health Department says.
It has been longer than a year since our exposure to MRSA. Before he died of cancer, my husband never showed signs of MRSA infection. To date, MRSA exposure hasn’t resulted in any adverse symptoms for me, either.