The Tampa Bay Buccaneers confirmed last week that a third player was diagnosed with a MRSA infection — something that isn't such a big surprise if you consider that up to 20 percent of healthy people carry the bacteria. But only a relatively small percentage become infected and develop potentially serious symptoms, which, if left untreated or treated too late, can be life-threatening.
What we know as MRSA is Staphylococcus aureus, a very common bacteria found on the skin and in the nose which usually don't cause any problems. Until they get inside the body. Once inside or under the skin, the bacteria work fast to cause a painful infection that can be difficult to beat and is resistant to most available antibiotics, which explains the first part of its name: methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus, or MRSA for short.
To learn more about this infection, the Times spoke with Morton Plant Mease infectious disease specialist Dr. Brent Laartz.
Why is it that so many people carry the staph bacteria but most never develop an infection?
We don't know. Some people just get colonized, which is what we call it when they carry the bacteria. Three to 7 percent of them will develop an infection. All it takes is a small opening in the skin for an infection to get started.
Why does it seem to target athletes?
Athletes, especially football players and wrestlers, come in close contact with each other's skin. A sport may also lend itself to injuries, cuts, bruises, scrapes, any kind of wound, and the bacteria can invade. Plus, locker rooms are usually dark, warm, moist places, which bacteria like, and there are lots of shared surfaces and objects that can come in contact with the skin, like benches, sinks, floors, towels. Brush up against someone who is colonized or something they've touched, and, if there's an opening in your skin, you may become infected.
How long can the bacteria survive on a surface?
In a moist, warm environment, it could be days. On a dry surface, a few hours. Professional teams are aware of this and use cleaning solutions and techniques to minimize risk, so personal contact, I think, is probably the greater threat to players.
Why is it that one infected player can return to the sport and another can't?
Everyone is different. It depends on where the infection is — if it's on the foot and you're a kicker, that can be disabling. But if you're a lineman, you may be able to play with an infection on your foot. If your treatment has involved receiving intravenous antibiotics and you have what we call a PICC line, you wouldn't be able to play with that on your body. (A PICC — peripherally inserted central catheter — is a tube surgically inserted into a vein, usually in the upper arm, to deliver medication for weeks or months.)
Isn't it unusual to be on antibiotics for months?
Not with MRSA. If the wound hasn't healed, the doctor might continue antibiotics. Typically, you give a course of treatment, stop the medication and see if the infection recurs or the wound gets worse. Some patients will do well with oral medication. Some need IV medications. Others will need antibiotics and surgery — surgery to drain and clean out the wound.
Have we made any headway with finding better antibiotics to fight MRSA?
A few are being investigated, but the number of new antibiotics has decreased steadily over the past two or three decades. We used to see two or three new antibiotics a year. Now we are getting one or two every other year. The FDA (U.S. Food and Drug Administration) and infectious disease specialists are working to increase funding for research in this field.
MRSA used to be confined to hospitals and nursing homes. How did it jump out to the community?
The strain of MRSA that is in the community is different from what we used to see in hospitals. It's a more aggressive strain infecting younger, healthier adults and some kids.
How do you know if you have a MRSA infection?
Watch for a wound or cut in the skin that quickly becomes red, warm, swollen and painful. It may also appear to be draining or have pus. Get immediate treatment. MRSA can go from a small, pimple-looking bump to a big, painful abscess overnight.