“Staph” is short for “staphylococcus.”It is pronounced like the word “staff.” Staph is a germ that can cause infections in any part of the body, but most of these are skin infections. Staph can infect openings in the skin, like scratches, and pimples or skin cysts. Anyone can get a staph infection.
Hospital patients can get staph infections of the skin:
Any place where a catheter or tube enters their body. This includes chest tubes, urinary catheters, IVs, or central lines.
In surgical wounds, pressure sores (also called bed sores), or foot ulcers
Once the staph germ enters the body, it can spread to bones, joints, the blood, or any organ, such as the lungs, heart, or brain.
Staph can also spread easily from one person to another.
Staph Infections in the Hospital
Most staph germs are spread by skin-to-skin contact (touching). A doctor, nurse, other health care provider, or even visitors may have staph germs on their body and then spread them to a patient. This can happen when:
A person develops a staph infection at home and brings this germ to the hospital.
A doctor, nurse, other health care provider, or visitor touches a patient who has a staph infection.
If the person then touches another patient without washing their hands first, the staph germs may spread.
Also, a patient may have a small staph infection before coming to the hospital. This can occur without the patient even being aware of it.
Staph infections less often occur when a patient directly touches clothing, sinks, and other objects.
Anytime an area of your skin appears red, swollen, or crusty, a staph infection may be the cause. The only way to know for sure is to do a culture.
To do the culture, your health care provider may use a cotton swab to collect a sample from an open skin rash or skin sore. A sample may also be taken from a wound, blood, or sputum (spit). The sample is sent to the lab for testing.
What Are the Risk Factors for a Staph Infection?
Many healthy people normally have staph on their skin. Most of the time, it does not cause an infection or symptoms. This is called colonization. But if you are sick or in the hospital, your risk for developing a staph infection is higher. Some people who are colonized by staph go on to develop an infection due to staph that can make them sick.
Common risk factors for developing a serious staph infection are:
Being in a hospital or other type of care facility for a long time
Having a weakened immune system
Injecting illegal drugs
Being on kidney dialysis
Preventing Staph Infections in the Hospital
The best way to prevent the spread of staph is for everyone to keep their hands clean. It is important to wash your hands properly.
Patients and visitors should:
Wash their hands with soap and running water for at least 20 seconds.
Wash and scrub their backs, palms, fingers, and between fingers thoroughly.
Dry with a clean paper towel.
Alcohol-based gels may also be used if your hands do not look dirty.
These gells should be at least 60% alcohol.
Use enough gel to completely wet your hands.
Rub your hands until they are dry.
Ask visitors to wash their hands before they come into your hospital room. They should also wash their hands when they leave your room.
Health care workers and other hospital staff can prevent staph infection by:
Washing their hands before and after they touch every patient
Wearing gloves and other protective clothing when they treat wounds, IVs, and catheters, and when they handle body fluids
Promptly cleaning up after dressing (bandage) changes, procedures, surgeries, and spills
Always using sterile equipment and sterile technique when taking care of patients and equipment
Checking for and promptly reporting any sign of wound infections
Many hospitals encourage patients to ask their health care providers if they have washed their hands. As a patient, you have the right to do this.
Fishman N, Calfee DP. Prevention and control of health care-associated infections.In: Goldman L, Schafer AI, eds. Cecil Medicine. 24th ed.Philadelphia,PA: Saunders Elsevier; 2011:chap 290.
David C. Dugdale, III, MD, Professor of Medicine, Division of General Medicine, Department of Medicine, University of Washington School of Medicine. Also reviewed by David Zieve, MD, MHA, Medical Director, A.D.A.M. Health Solutions, Ebix, Inc.