This Week's Question: I have to go into the hospital for surgery soon and I'm more afraid of a staph infection than I am about the operation. Should I be concerned?

Unfortunately, you should be very concerned, especially because of an antibiotic-resistant strain of staph that is on the rise. This version is called methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus (MRSA).

Those who are at the highest risk are older adults and people with weakened immune systems . MRSA can be fatal.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reports that, in 1974, MRSA infections represented two percent of staph infections. In 1995, the percentage was up to 22. In 2004, 63 percent of staph infections were from MRSA.

A 2007 report from the Association for Professionals in Infection Control and Epidemiology estimated that 46 out of every 1,000 people hospitalized get MRSA.

Staph skin infections, including MRSA, usually begin with red bumps that look like pimples or insect bites. These can degenerate into deep, painful abscesses that require surgical draining. Sometimes the bacteria can also penetrate into the bones, surgical wounds, the bloodstream, heart valves and lungs.

Staph is found on the skin or in the nose of about one-third of the population. If you have staph without illness, you are "colonized." You can spread staff to others if you're colonized. Staph bacteria are usually harmless unless they enter the body through a wound.

There are two categories of this infection: healthcare-associated MRSA (HA-MRSA), and community-associated MRSA (CA-MRSA). Most MRSA infections are healthcare-associated; they occur in facilities such as hospitals, nursing homes and dialysis centers. CA-MRSA skin infections spread where there is skin-to-skin contact and when personal items are shared. CA-MRSA became known in the 1990s.

A bit of history.

The bacterium known as staph, was discovered in the 1880s. In the 1940s, antibiotics such as penicillin were treating staph successfully. Misuse of antibiotics then helped staph to resist penicillin, so methicillin was introduced to counter the stronger staph.

In 1961, the first strains of MRSA were identified. MRSA is resistant to an entire class of penicillin-like antibiotics that includes penicillin, amoxicillin, oxacillin, methicillin, and others.

Staph has continued to evolve. In 2002, physicians documented the first staph resistant to the antibiotic vancomycin, which had been one of a handful of antibiotics of last resort for use against staph.

While antibiotics are a major weapon against staph, many infections can be treated by draining an abscess without prescribing medication.

To diagnose staff, a sample is obtained from the infection site and sent to a laboratory for testing. It takes about 48 hours to get results. Newer tests can detect staph DNA in a matter of hours.

So, how can you protect yourself in the hospital? Here are some pointers:

  • Ask all hospital staff to wash their hands or use an alcohol-based hand sanitizer before touching you.
  • Make sure that intravenous tubes and catheters are inserted under sterile conditions. The healthcare professional inserting tubes or catheters should wear a gown, gloves and mask. And, your skin should be sterilized beforehand.

The Healthy Geezer column publishes several times a Month on MyHealthNewsDaily. If you would like to ask a question, please write fred@healthygeezer.com.