What Is Staphylococcus?

What Did You Call That Germ?

Staphylococcus is a group of bacteria, often referred to as Staph, which is responsible for a multitude of diseases that are caused by infection.  Staph bacteria not only cause illness directly by infection, but also indirectly by poisons it produces which cause problems such as food poisoning and toxic shock syndrome.  The severity of staph infection can range from mild, requiring no treatment, to fatal.

The Greek words "staphyle", meaning a bunch of grapes and "kokkos" meaning berry, are what make up the word staphylococcus - and that is what the bacteria looks like under a microscope - a bunch of grapes or berries. 

There are more than 30 different kinds of Staphylococci that can infect humans but the most common is staphylococcus aureus, found on nearly a third of healthy adults.  Usually the bacteria do not cause disease unless there is some skin damage or other type of injury which opens the body up to infection.  While anyone can develop a Staph infection, there are certain groups at greater risk, including people with diabetes, cancer, vascular disease or lung disease, drug users and those with skin injuries or disorders.

Where Boils Come From...

The most prominent and common result of a staph infection is an abscess or boil.  The area around the boil is usually red, swollen and painful and the boil or abscess is filled with pus.  Often the infection will drain and the wound will heal without problem, although that is not always the case.

Staph infection of the skin - boils or abscesses - can progress into other more serious skin problems such as impetigo, which is a crusting of the skin, or cellulitis, an inflammation of tissue under the skin which becomes swollen and red.  Breastfeeding women can be affected by mastitis and nursing babies can become infected through a release of bacteria into the mother's milk.

Treatments For Staph Infections

In cases of skin infections, such as boils, staphylococcus aureus is commonly diagnosed and treated on the basis of appearance.  Should the infection spread to the bloodstream or organs, as can happen in toxic shock syndrome or food poisoning, then testing and diagnosis by medical professionals will determine the correct course of action.

As a rule, minor skin infections, boils and abscesses are treated with antibiotics, either creams or in more serious cases, orally and they may require surgical drainage.  Life-threatening infections are treated with intravenous antibiotics, as determined by the medical professional in charge.