By Norman K. Brown, M.D.,
UTU medical consultant
Please wash your hands. Micro-organisms – bacteria, viruses, yeasts – are all around us. Bacteria live especially closely with us, most often in a friendly manner, in the nose, mouth, lower intestine, genitals, on the skin, and in many healthy foods, such as yogurt.
We, in fact, need these friendly bacteria.
However, in recent years, the most common bacteria on our skin – staphylococcus, or staph, for short — has developed a strain that is resistant to the penicillin-type antibiotics.
This “methicillin resistant staph aureus,” so called MRSA, not only resists good antibiotics, but also tends to be a nasty organism when it invades one of us deeper than the skin surface.
Infections with MRSA are usually spread when MRSA starts growing in a break in your skin. Since MRSA in small numbers are just resting on the skins of many of us, they are nowadays very often the first invaders to take advantage of a break in your skin, such as after a cut, a pimple or an insect bite.
Trouble does not usually show up immediately. So any time that a break in your skin heals too slowly, or becomes red, swollen or painful — say two to three days later — be suspicious of infection and consult with your doctor for recommendations and treatment promptly.
But even before you get such an infection, let’s think about simple ways to head it off in the first place.
When you have been exposed to possibly bacteria-laden materials, such as a scab or pus from somebody else, or maybe a boil, a soiled bandage, mucus from the nose or coughed out, or any portions of a bowel movement, please clean your skin as soon as you can.
I am told that alcohol wipes may be the only method available for bus and train operators — and they do the job; so think of them as equivalent to, “Please, wash your hands.”
Soap and warm water are better, in my opinion, when available. By the way, there is good evidence that a few bacteria, even MRSA, on our skin is normal and healthy; but large numbers — usually from someone else’s infection — can be the problem.
So, reasonably clean skin, not forever sterile, is the goal.
Keeping our hands clean enough to be comfortable eating with them at any time will go a long way toward preventing MRSA infections.
MRSA is not thought to move through the air, but rather gets transferred around with our own hands, on the skin. So as you work through your day, try to avoid touching materials that may be contaminated with MRSA in the first place — even on your own body. But if you do have to handle them, remember what mom said: “Wash your hands thoroughly with warm water and soap.”