MRSA and Children: What You Should Know

Millions of Americans develop serious infections each year from drug-resistant staphylococcus bacteria. This type of staph bacteria is known as methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus (MRSA), although it's resistant to common antibiotics, including penicillin and amoxicillin.

MRSA infections originally appeared mostly in hospitals and nursing homes. A virulent kind of resistant "staph" has developed outside of health care settings. It's known as community-acquired MRSA. Like hospital MRSA infections, it can become life-threatening if the bacterium spreads from the skin, to the lungs, the bloodstream, or other organs in the body.

What are the symptoms of MRSA?

MRSA infections generally begin as skin infections. The bacterium invades the skin through an open sore, cut, or scrape. For children, the most common source of infection is a simple cut or abrasion.

Boy with cut on his knee

If caught early, a MRSA infection is usually easy to treat. It's important to seek medical treatment for your child immediately if you notice any symptoms, because the infection can rapidly become serious if it's not treated right away. 

These are symptoms of a MRSA skin infection:

  • Bump that is painful, red, leaking pus, and/or swollen (this may resemble a spider bite, pimple, or boil)

  • Bumps under the skin that are swollen or hard to the touch

  • Skin around a sore that is warm or hot to the touch

  • Bump that grows rapidly and/or does not heal

  • Painful sore accompanied by a fever

  • Rash or pus-filled blisters

  • Draining boil or abscess

MRSA infections often start at a location where the skin is already visibly broken, such as with a cut or sore. They may also occur in places that are usually covered by hair.

When to seek medical care

Call your health care provider right away if you suspect that your child's cut is infected or if you notice unusual, painful red bumps or pustules. Do not try to drain or treat a MRSA infection on your own. This can spread the infection to other people or make it worse for your child. Instead, cover the suspected infection, wash your hands thoroughly, and call your child's doctor.

If your child has a skin infection along with signs of a systemic infection, such as a fever, chills, severe headache, and rash, he or she needs immediate medical attention.

What are the complications of MRSA?

Left untreated, a MRSA skin infection may:

  • Infect other people through physical contact or contact with contaminated items

  • Cause damage to surrounding tissue

  • Turn into an infection that spreads through the body and that may cause blood poisoning, pneumonia, flesh-eating disease, life-threatening shock, and death

How is MRSA diagnosed?

Your health care provider may:

  • Take your child's temperature and blood pressure

  • Examine the sore and other parts of your child's body

  • Take samples of pus, tissue, blood, or sputum for culture and analysis

  • Do imaging tests if infection has spread to joints or bones

How is MRSA treated?

If your child has a mild MRSA skin infection, your doctor will likely treat it by opening the infected sore and draining out the pus. Your child will likely also be given a prescription antibiotic ointment and possibly antibiotics by mouth. The doctor will tell you how to keep the area clean and covered while it heals.

If the infection has spread to other parts of the body, the medical team may need to stabilize your child and treat the infection with intravenous (IV) antibiotics in the hospital. In some cases, such as infection of the joints, your child may need surgery to allow the infection to drain.

If your child is prescribed antibiotics, make sure he or she takes every dose in the way your health care provider advises. Many infections can be cured within 14 days, but MRSA may last longer. Make sure your child takes all the medication as prescribed even if he or she feels better. Your doctor will probably want to follow up with you to make sure the infection is healed.

When the infection is particularly stubborn, your health care provider may also recommend that your child take baths in diluted bleach water–one-half cup of bleach in a bathtub that is one-quarter full–to prevent spreading. Body washing with chlorhexidine, an antibacterial soap, may also be recommended. 

A secondary approach to managing MRSA infection is to remove the bacteria where they often live without causing trouble: the nose. Your doctor may recommend certain medications for your child's nose to kill any MRSA that live there.

If you follow all the recommended steps and notice that your child's infection is not healing or is getting worse, contact your health care provider right away.

Can MRSA be prevented?

Although MRSA is an alarming prospect, the steps to prevent it are simple and affordable. Here are tips on how you and your children can protect yourselves:

  • Wash hands often. Teaching your children to wash their hands, and washing your own hands with soap and water will help stop all kinds of infections, including MRSA, from spreading. When soap and water aren't available, use an alcohol-based hand sanitizer.

  • Use bandages when needed. Keep sores and cuts covered and clean until they heal.

  • Don't touch sores. Teach children not to touch or play with sores and scabs—theirs or other children's. Also, don't let children scratch their skin so much that they create tiny breaks in it; use an anti-itch cream on some areas if necessary. This is particularly important if they get chickenpox or another itchy disease.

  • Don't share personal items. Teach children not to share personal items such as towels, just as adults shouldn't share razors or other skin care items.

  • Be careful around hospitalized individuals. When visiting loved ones in the hospital or a residential care facility, practice good personal hygiene and avoid touching catheters, ports, and IVs where they enter the skin. Wash your hands with soap after you leave the room. Teach children to do the same.

  • Teach prevention tips for athletes. Student athletes may need to take additional steps to prevent infection, including:

    • Shower immediately after competition or practice, especially after contact sports. Always shower before getting into a whirlpool with other athletes.

    • Keep equipment and supplies clean, and wash uniforms after each use.

    • Make sure sanitizing products are available for cleaning mats and other shared sports equipment. Check with coaches and other adults to be sure that these are used.

    • Don't compete in contact sports if you have a wound that is open or bleeding. Keep all cuts and scrapes covered.

Children could be at risk in crowded situations, such as day-care settings and team sports, where infections can spread easily through contact. Ask about the steps taken to prevent the spread of infection. These should include regularly disinfecting surfaces, toys, and mats.

If you or your child has a MRSA infection, make sure that others in the household, school, and sports teams are aware of the infection, so that they can take steps to protect themselves and other children.