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Staphylococcus aureus (staph) is a very common bacterium that can cause mild skin, mouth, and respiratory tract infections. Most strains of staph are easily treatable with common antibiotics such as methicillin and penicillin. Certain strains, however, have evolved a resistance to antibiotics over the last few decades and are thus very difficult to treat. Methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus (MRSA) is a highly contagious strain that can cause epidemics in hospitals, schools, daycare centers, and other places where large groups of people share common space. Respiratory MRSA occurs when bacteria embed in the lungs and throat, which can lead to life-threatening breathing problems and general illness.
Respiratory MRSA infections can be either primary or secondary. A primary infection begins in the respiratory tract, and can be acquired when bacteria are inhaled from another person's sneeze or cough. Unsterilized breathing tubes used in hospitals can also introduce bacteria into the lungs. Secondary infections typically enter the body through a skin wound and eventually travel to the lungs through the bloodstream. Respiratory MRSA symptoms can develop quickly, sometimes within days or hours of the initial infection.
The most common symptoms of respiratory MRSA are fever, fatigue, chest pain, and breathing difficulties. A person may experience shortness of breath, coughing, nausea, and headaches. Muscles and joints tend to feel achy, and it may be very uncomfortable or impossible to even sit upright in bed. A potentially fatal case of pneumonia can set in if the condition is not recognized and treated right away. Other life-threatening complications can occur if MRSA migrates from the lungs to other major organ systems, including the kidneys and the heart.
Prompt diagnosis and treatment are essential to prevent serious lung damage. Patients are typically quarantined in sterile hospital rooms to reduce the risk of spreading infection to other patients and health-care workers. Blood and sputum samples are collected and cultured in a laboratory to identify the particular strain of staph involved. In most cases, a team of specialists works together to determine the best course of treatment.
The first goal of respiratory MRSA treatment is to stabilize breathing and heart rate. A patient may be given oxygen through a mask or breathing tube. Intravenous fluids and blood pressure medications are administered to keep the kidneys, liver, and heart functioning properly. In most cases, several different types of antibiotics, including clindamycin and tetracycline, are given intravenously in an attempt to stop the spread of infection and kill existing bacteria. Depending on the effectiveness of antibiotics and the severity of symptoms, a patient may need to stay in the hospital for several weeks.
Once an antibiotic has proven effective and the patient is stable, he or she is usually provided with an oral prescription to take at home for two to four weeks. Family members, coworkers, or others who have been in close contact with the patient are encouraged to be screened for MRSA. Most outbreaks can be contained when patients follow their doctors' instructions about medication use and limiting close personal contact.