The Truth About Staph


When I heard that high schools were closing and teenagers were dying because of the MRSA superbug, I felt lucky. Since the middle of 2006, Ive had methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus six times and somehow managed to avoid the worst: Ive never been hospitalized and dont fear for my life. But, please, take my advice and do everything you can to avoid this dangerous infection.

My first episode was in July 2006. I live in Boston and was going to visit a friend on Nantucket. I leaned back in my seat on the plane and felt a dull pain, like someone was pressing really hard on my buttock. When I arrived I asked my friend to take a look. That sounds embarrassing, but I couldnt see the problem myself. She said it was just a pimple but really red. By the third day the irritated area was more than three inches wide and burning sharply. I was nervous, so I left the island early and went to my doctor.

He gave me an antibiotic called Keflex for a skin infection, but the pimple just got bigger, hotter, harder, and redder. Sitting was almost impossible. And soon it wasnt just my buttock that ached. I had developed a second spot—on my labia!

Next Page: What is it? [ pagebreak ]What is it?
I still didnt know I had MRSA. Truth is, I hardly knew anything about MRSA. But I wasnt getting better, so while I was at my weekend house in Connecticut, I decided to go to the emergency room. The doctors there gave me a local anesthetic, then cut open and cleaned out the spot on my buttock. The abscess underneath was big enough that they had to pack it with absorbent material to soak up pus. When they cultured the infection, I finally learned it was MRSA. The doctors changed my antibiotic to Augmentin, because the first one wouldnt work against the resistant bug. But they didnt want to touch the spot on my labia. Id have to go to a gynecologist for that.

When I returned to Boston, I went back to my doctors office to get the packing changed, but the doc wouldnt do it because they didnt have the necessary surgical tools. I had to go to the emergency room. I went over to the ER in the same hospital complex; they agreed to change the packing, but didnt want to touch the spot on my labia. Again they said I needed a gyno. Argh! Five doctors visits for this one infection, and the thing was getting worse. I was losing it.

I walked into the medical building next door and found an OB-GYNs office. They agreed to take a look. The doctor pinpricked the swollen area, got a little pus out, and sent it to be cultured. It was MRSA. Again.

Both spots healed up, and for three weeks I was fine. But then two months later, in September, it happened again: hot, red spots on my perineum and labia. I was really frustrated. I couldnt believe it had come back. Before long I was back at the ER for another draining and culture. More MRSA. More antibiotics, this time something called Bactrim.

Next Page: Is it my fault? [ pagebreak ]Is it my fault?
Eventually, I saw an infectious-disease specialist, who did all kinds of tests (including diabetes and HIV) to figure out whether I had a condition that would make me vulnerable. Everything came up negative. I wasnt surprised. I used to be a professional dancer, and Ive always been very healthy. The tests, though, made me feel even more nervous and unsure of myself.

The specialist couldnt explain why the outbreaks kept coming back, but the fact that they popped up where I sweat was a clue. I work out at the gym three times a week and also run. Id come straight from the gym and start working in the garden, changing clothes first but waiting until I was back inside to shower. Bad idea. The specialist told me to shower and change clothes right away so that bacteria wouldnt have a chance to breed, and to wash my workout clothes every day. She also had me try “decolonization”—a real hassle. For five days, I showered with an antibacterial soap called Hibiclens (my husband, too), and for two weeks I put an ointment called Bactroban up my nose (because staph can live there) and on my perineum. I also washed all our sheets and towels every day, in hot water with bleach. Later, I saw a dermatologist who recommended I switch from spandex to loose cotton just in case the tight outfits were rubbing against my skin and leaving tiny abrasions.

Next Page: What more can I do? [ pagebreak ]What more can I do?
I wish I could say that was enough to solve the problem. But last winter the infection came back—again!—this time under my arm and on my breast. My belly was next, in June, and again in September. Most of these spots, like the others, needed to be drained, packed, and treated with Bactrim.

Had I done something wrong? My friends kept telling me to change doctors, but the docs say the same things: “Were seeing this a lot, and we dont know why its back.” Truth is, I feel I was doing everything right. Im obsessive now about following the specialists advice. Im moisturizing in hopes of avoiding cracks in my skin that might be a breeding ground. I wash my hands all the time. I use my wrists and the backs of my hands to open doors in public restrooms.

I cant imagine what else I could do about MRSA. Except warn you.

What are my real risks for MRSA?
1 in 3,200

Those are estimated odds of developing a serious MRSA infection this year, based on Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimates for the number of infections in 2007. Your odds of being audited by the IRS? About 1 in 100. Up to 1 percent of Americans are believed to carry MRSA on their skin or in their noses, yet most never develop an infection. In other words, your MRSA risks are extremely low, although no one can say for sure. In short, dont panic—and dont stick your head in the sand.

*Jilly Jackson is not the authors real name.

Maryn McKennas book on MRSA, Superbug, will be published by Free Press in 2009.