Types of Staph Infections

Medically Reviewed By Emelia Arquilla, DO
Was this helpful?
206

Staphylococcus (staph) infections are common bacterial infections. There are more than 30 types of staph organisms that can make people ill. Infections caused by Staphylococcus aureus (S. aureus) are the most common. Many people carry staph bacteria on their skin and in their noses, but if they are healthy and have no open wounds, they usually never get sick. Others become seriously ill with staph infections involving the skin, lungs, heart, and bones.

Staph bacteria can spread easily from person to person and from object to person. They are particularly prevalent in places such as gyms, locker rooms, and areas where people congregate. However, you can also find staph bacteria on everyday objects, such as doorknobs and telephones.

Although many staph infections are treatable, some progress to more severe stages, resulting in complications such as sepsis.

This article explains the types of staph infections in more detail, including staph skin infections, food poisoning, bacteremia, MRSA, and more.

What is a staph infection?

Staphylococcus, often shortened to “staph,” are bacteria that about 1 in 3 people have in their noses or on their skin. The germs may not cause any problems, but if they enter the body through a cut, for example, they can cause an infection. There are many types of staph infections, but the most common types are skin infections. 

Types of staph infections

There are many types of staph infections. This section explores some of the more common ones, including staph skin infections.

Staph skin infections

Skin infections are the most common type of staph infection. When staph bacteria infect the skin, they can cause:

Boils

A boil is an inflamed, sometimes painful, pimple-like bump on the skin. It may ooze fluid or pus.

Boils occur when a hair follicle and the skin around it become infected with bacteria. If you have a boil, your doctor may make a small incision on it, drain the pus, and disinfect the wound. If many boils have merged or there are other complications, your doctor may prescribe an antibiotic.

Impetigo

Impetigo occurs when bacteria enter the skin through a cut, scrape, or bug bite.

Impetigo begins with small pimples or bumps, which fill with pus. When the bumps break, a thick, itchy crust forms. Try to avoid scratching this, as that can spread the infection. Your doctor may prescribe antibiotics to treat impetigo. 

Cellulitis

When bacteria enter the skin through a cut, wound, or burn, it can lead to cellulitis. The skin can become inflamed and painful and sometimes have a pitted appearance. The area may blister and scab over. People with cellulitis may also experience fever, chills, and swollen lymph nodes or glands.

Streptococcus bacteria are the most common cause of cellulitis, but Staphylococcus bacteria also cause it. Your doctor may prescribe oral antibiotics or, in more serious cases, IV antibiotics to treat cellulitis. 

Scalded skin syndrome

Also called Ritter Disease, staphylococcal scalded skin syndrome occurs when a staph infection in the bloodstream spreads to the skin, causing the skin to blister and peel as if scalded by hot water.

It is most common in infants. Treatment may include oral or IV antibiotics along with moisturizers and ointments. Symptoms should begin to improve after 24–48 hours.

Staph food poisoning

If someone carrying staph bacteria handles food without washing their hands correctly first, they can contaminate the food with staph. The bacteria can multiply, and even though cooking the food will kill the bacteria, the toxins remain and can make people sick.

Staph food poisoning can cause the sudden onset of:

Symptoms generally last about a day and do not cause severe illness. If you develop food poisoning, be sure to stay hydrated by drinking plenty of fluids.

Find out what it takes to recover from food poisoning here.

Bacteremia

Bacteremia means that there are bacteria in the bloodstream. An infection of the bloodstream can be serious, leading to sepsis, which is the immune system’s extreme response to infection. Sepsis is life threatening and requires immediate medical treatment.

According to a 2022 article about bacteremia, some common sources of infection that lead to bacteremia in a hospital setting include catheters and the respiratory system. In the community (outside of a hospital setting), untreated urinary tract infections are the most common causes of bacteremia.

If you have bacteremia, your doctor will likely perform many tests — including blood tests, urine tests, and a chest X-ray — to determine the source of the infection and the bacteria causing it.

They will treat the illness with IV antibiotics as quickly as possible.

Pneumonia

Although not the most common bacterial cause, staph pneumonia is a common complication of influenza and IV substance use.

Symptoms of staph pneumonia include:

To diagnose staph pneumonia, a healthcare professional will take an X-ray, order tests of your blood, and possibly take a phlegm sample.

Antibiotics are necessary to clear the infection.

Toxic shock syndrome

Toxic shock syndrome (TSS) occurs when bacteria release toxins into the body. It was originally associated with the use of certain brands of high absorbency tampons, which are no longer sold.

However, according to the Sepsis Alliance, there are other risk factors for this rare illness, including:

  • having a recent surgery, wound, or cut
  • having a viral infection
  • using contraceptive sponges or diaphragms
  • having recently given birth
  • having a miscarriage or an abortion
  • having TSS in the past

TSS is life threatening. Symptoms happen quickly and include: 

  • high fever
  • a sunburn-like rash, especially on the palms of the hands and soles of the feet
  • a sudden drop in blood pressure
  • confusion
  • diarrhea
  • fatigue

TSS can lead to sepsis and needs immediate treatment. This includes removing the source of the infection if possible and giving the person IV antibiotics and fluids.

Septic arthritis

Septic arthritis, also called infectious arthritis, is an infection in a joint. The infection begins elsewhere in the body — often due to surgery, an injection, or a wound — and spreads to the joint. It is more common in children than adults.

Symptoms include:

Your doctor may test your blood, urine, or joint fluid to diagnose septic arthritis. Treatment includes taking antibiotics and draining the infected joint fluid. 

Learn more about septic arthritis here.

MRSA

Healthcare professionals use antibiotics to treat staph infections. However, there are staph germs that are resistant to certain antibiotics. Methicillin-resistant S. aureus (MRSA) is an antibiotic-resistant strain of staph.

MRSA infections can be divided into two groups

  • healthcare-associated MRSA, which occurs in healthcare settings
  • community-associated MRSA, which occurs in people who have close, skin-to-skin contact, such as athletes or children in day care

Most MRSA infections are skin infections that begin as a bump, boil, or painful area on the skin. It is important to treat MRSA as soon as possible because it can spread quickly and lead to life threatening issues such as sepsis.

Doctors treat MRSA with a selection of antibiotics that are effective against it. Surgery to drain the infected areas might also be necessary.

Learn six warning signs of MRSA here.

Endocarditis

Endocarditis refers to inflammation of the lining of the heart chambers and heart valves. A bacterial infection is the usual cause, and this occurs when germs get into the bloodstream and make their way to the heart. According to the American Heart Association (AHA), infective endocarditis is not common and can develop either suddenly or slowly over several weeks or months.

Symptoms of infective endocarditis include:

Osteomyelitis

Osteomyelitis is an infection in the bone that is most commonly caused by staph bacteria.

Symptoms can vary depending on which bones are affected, but the condition can lead to bone damage and loss. Osteomyelitis can occur after surgery, trauma, or the insertion of a prosthetic joint. It can also occur in people with diabetes who have poor blood flow in their feet.

Treatment may include taking antibiotics as well as surgically draining the infected area. 

Learn more about staph infections here.

When to contact a doctor

If you have any symptoms of a bacterial infection, including staph, it is important to contact your doctor and get treatment with antibiotics as soon as possible.

Even a small cut, if infected and left untreated, can lead to much more serious illnesses, including sepsis.

What staph skin infections look like

boils skin infection on my nephew due to dirty blood circulation and skin irritation

Boil

What an infected boil may look like

Antoksena/Getty Images

impetigo-body7.jpg

Impetigo

Impetigo is a contagious rash caused by Staph bacteria that first appears are red sores that then become crusted over with a honey color discharge.

Åsa Thörn, CC BY-SA 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons

cellulitis-of-the-lower-legs-body7.jpg

Cellulitis of the lower legs

Cellulitis is a skin infection that can be caused by Staph bacteria.

TisforThan/Shutterstock

3634-scalded-syndrome-baby-648x364-slide1.jpg

Staph scalded skin syndrome

Staph scalded skin syndrome is not caused directly by Staph bacteria itself, but by a toxin that can be released from the bacteria. It causes peeling of large areas of the skin and is a serious infection.

Risk factors

Anyone can get a staph infection, but there are some factors that increase your risk of developing one, including:

  • having a chronic condition, such as diabetes or cancer
  • having a weakened immune system
  • using a catheter, feeding tube, or breathing tube
  • being on dialysis
  • injecting illegal drugs
  • engaging in contact sports that include skin-to-skin contact, potential broken skin, and shared equipment

Prevention of staph infections

Some ways to prevent staph infections include:

  • washing your hands frequently and thoroughly for 20 seconds
  • not sharing clothing, towels, or sheets with someone who has a staph infection
  • cleaning and drying or sterilizing athletic equipment between uses
  • practicing food safety and not preparing food for anyone if you have a staph infection
  • keeping cuts and wounds covered
  • not injecting drugs or, if you are unable or do not feel ready to stop injecting drugs, using safer injecting practices

Diagnosis

To diagnose a staph infection, your doctor will perform a physical exam and ask you about any symptoms you are experiencing.

They may be able to diagnose a staph skin infection by looking at it. For other types of staph infections, your doctor may perform a bacteria culture test. To do this, they will collect a skin, urine, or stool sample or swab your nose or throat for a laboratory test. The laboratory will then analyze the sample to see if staph bacteria or other types of bacteria are growing from it.

Depending on the type of infection, your doctor also may take X-rays or more advanced scans, such as a CT scan.

Ways to get rid of staph infections

Antibiotics are the primary treatment option for staph infections. Depending on the type of infection you have, your doctor may prescribe an antibiotic cream or ointment, an oral antibiotic, or IV antibiotics for severe infections.

It may also be necessary to drain the fluid around the wound or perform surgery on infected bones.

Complications of staph infections

Staph infection treatment with antibiotics is effective, and the earlier treatment starts, the better.

However, left untreated or undiagnosed, staph infections can lead to serious complications. Untreated staph infections, including MRSA, could spread to the bloodstream, the lungs, the heart, the bones, and even the joints.

Infections can also trigger an inflammatory response called sepsis. Sepsis occurs when your overwhelmed immune system starts to attack your whole body rather than the infection itself. The infection can seem minor, such as a boil or cellulitis, but still trigger sepsis. If sepsis occurs, possible complications include amputations, organ failure, and even death.

Read about the hidden risks of sepsis here.

Outlook

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), staph is one of the main causes of infections in hospitals and other healthcare settings in the U.S.

In recent years, the number of staph infections in the community (outside of healthcare settings) has risen. The CDC says that the rise may be due, in part, to the opioid crisis. This may be because injecting drugs is a risk factor for staph infections.

Starting early treatment with antibiotics can keep a staph infection from spreading and becoming a serious or life threatening illness.

Summary

Staph infections are caused by S. aureus, a common species of bacteria. You can have staph bacteria on your skin and in your nose but not get sick from it. In some situations, however, these bacteria can mount an infection. Staph bacteria can also spread between people and objects.

Staph skin infections are the most common type of staph infection. You can become seriously ill with staph infections that involve the skin as well as those in the lungs, heart, or bones.

It is important to contact a doctor for any symptoms of a staph infection because it can lead to a life threatening condition. Antibiotic medications can treat most staph infections.

Was this helpful?
206
Medical Reviewer: Emelia Arquilla, DO
Last Review Date: 2022 Apr 20
View All Infections and Contagious Diseases Articles
THIS TOOL DOES NOT PROVIDE MEDICAL ADVICE. It is intended for informational purposes only. It is not a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. Never ignore professional medical advice in seeking treatment because of something you have read on the site. If you think you may have a medical emergency, immediately call your doctor or dial 911.