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Identifying MRSA: Can You Tell the Difference?

  • May 25, 2011
  • RPh on the Go

If a customer comes to you with an infection asking about OTC medications, would you know if it were MRSA? MRSA is a strain of staphylococcus aureus, or staph infection resistant to antibiotics. Staph bacteria can be found anywhere, including on the skin of nearly 1/3 of the population. About one out of every 100 Americans carries the strain of staph known as MRSA.

Years of over-prescribed antibiotics resulted in a MRSA superbug that thumbs its nose at conventional treatments. By destroying some, but not all, targeted bacteria, antibiotics put the surviving bacteria on an evolutionary bullet train. Germs that survived multiplied into ever-hardier strains. The mutated offspring of these hardy strains are superbugs that we are often ill equipped to deal with.

Signs and Symptoms of MRSA

In the beginning, MRSA looks much like a typical staph infection. It can take the form of small red bumps that indicate cellulitis, pus-filled boils, or abscesses, a stye in the eye, carbuncles, which are similar to abscesses but larger and with openings in the skin, impetigo, or rash.

Visual inspection may not reveal the extent of the infection. The definitive test to distinguish MRSA from skin conditions that appear similar is done in a lab. A sample of skin, pus, blood, or urine is tested for staph and then exposed to antibiotics. If bacteria exposed to antibiotics flourishes, it is classified as MRSA.

MRSA bacteria may remain on the surface of the skin, but can travel into the bloodstream to infect the bones, joints, heart, and lungs. If a customer comes in with what looks like an infected rash or describes an infection that started small and spread, advise them to see a physician. If someone presents with a rash plus any of the following symptoms, send them to the doctor, or an emergency room, immediately:

  •      Fever
  •      Chills
  •      Low blood pressure
  •      Shortness of breath
  •      Joint pain
  •     Severe headaches
  •     Rash that covers most of the body

These indications of MRSA spread can result in a number of complications, up to and including death. As the first line of defense for many customers and patients, the most helpful thing we can do as pharmacists is observe – and speak up. The best thing we can do to protect the next customer in line is keep the counter clean (discreetly) to avoid spreading bacteria. If a customer came in asking about cream for a rash, what questions would you ask?

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