"Staph" (pronounced staff) is short for Staphylococcus. Staph is a germ (bacteria) that can cause infections in any part of the body, but most are skin infections. Staph can infect openings in the skin, like scratches, pimples, or skin cysts. Anyone can get a staph infection.
Hospital patients can get staph infections of the skin:
Any where a catheter or tube enters the body. This includes chest tubes, urinary catheters, IVs, or central lines
In surgical wounds, pressure sores (also called bed sores), or foot ulcers
Once the staph germ enters the body, it can spread to bones, joints, and the blood. It can also spread to or any organ, such as the lungs, heart, or brain.
Staph can also spread easily from one person to another.
Staph infections in the hospital
Staph germs are mostly spread by skin-to-skin contact (touching). A doctor, nurse, other health care provider, or even visitors may have staph germs on their body and then spread them to a patient. This can happen when:
A health care provider carries staph on the skin as normal bacteria.
A doctor, nurse, other health care provider, or visitor touches a patient who has a staph infection.
A person develops a staph infection at home and brings this germ to the hospital. If the person then touches another patient without washing their hands first, the staph germs may spread.
Also, a patient may have a staph infection before coming to the hospital. This can occur without the patient even being aware of it.
In a few cases, patients can get staph infections by touching clothing, sinks, or other objects that have staph germs on them.
Many healthy people normally have staph on their skin. Most of the time, it does not cause an infection or symptoms. This is called being colonized with staph. These persons are known as carriers. They can spread staph to others. Some people colonized with staph develop an actual staph infection that makes them sick.
Common risk factors for developing a serious staph infection are:
Being in a hospital or other type of care facility for a long time
Having a weakened immune system or ongoing (chronic) illness
Having an open cut or sore
Having a medical device inside your body such as an artificial joint
Injecting illegal drugs
Living with or having close contact with a person who has staph
Being on kidney dialysis
How do you know if you have a staph infection?
Anytime an area of your skin appears red, swollen, or crusty, a staph infection may be the cause. The only way to know for sure is to have a test called a skin culture. To do the culture, your doctor may use a cotton swab to collect a sample from an open a wound, skin rash, or skin sore. A sample may also be taken from a wound, blood, or sputum (spit). The sample is sent to the lab for testing.
Preventing staph infection in hospitals
The best way to prevent the spread of staph is for everyone to keep their hands clean. It is important to wash your hands thoroughly.
Wet the hands and wrists, then apply soap.
Rub the palms, backs of the hands, fingers, and in between the fingers until the soap is bubbly.
Rinse clean with running water.
Dry with a clean paper towel.
Use a paper towel to turn off the faucet.
Alcohol-based gels may also be used if your hands are not visibly dirty.
These gels should be at least 60% alcohol.
Use enough gel to wet the hands completely.
Rub your hands until they are dry.
Ask visitors to wash their hands before they come into your hospital room. They should also wash their hands when they leave your room.
Health care workers and other hospital staff can prevent staph infection by:
Washing their hands before and after they touch every patient
Wearing gloves and other protective clothing when they treat wounds, touch IVs and catheters, and when they handle bodily fluids
Fishman N, Calfee DP. Prevention and control of health care-associated infections. In: Goldman L, Schafer AI, eds. Goldman's Cecil Medicine. 24th ed. Philadelphia, PA: Saunders Elsevier Saunders; 2011:chap 290.
Rupp ME, Fey PD. Staphylococcus epidermidis and other coagulase-negative Staphylococci. In: Mandell GL, Bennett JE, Dolin R, eds. Principles and Practice of Infectious Diseases. 7th ed. Philadelphia, PA: Elsevier Churchill-Livingstone; 2009:chap 196.
Jatin M. Vyas, MD, PhD, Assistant Professor in Medicine, Harvard Medical School; Assistant in Medicine, Division of Infectious Disease, Department of Medicine, Massachusetts General Hospital. Also reviewed by David Zieve, MD, MHA, Isla Ogilvie, PhD, and the A.D.A.M. Editorial team.