MRSA, or methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus, is a potentially severe or fatal bacterial infection.
Years ago, MRSA mainly caused problems in hospitals and healthcare centers, but it has since spread into the community. Children, toddlers, and babies can pick up the bacteria from contact with other kids.
MRSA can be difficult to treat because it is resistant to some common antibiotics. This means that the medication can no longer kill the bacteria.
In this article, we describe how to recognize MRSA in children, and what parents and caregivers should do next.
How to identify MRSA in children
A child with MRSA will usually develop a skin infection.
MRSA spreads mainly through skin-to-skin contact.
About one in three people carry Staphylococcus aureus in their nose without becoming ill, while only about two people in 100 carry the resistant strain that causes MRSA.
However, if MRSA bacteria get further into the body, it can cause problems. The bacteria can enter through any skin that is broken, such as a cut or scrape.
MRSA usually starts as a skin infection that can appear anywhere on a child's body.
Early symptoms of MRSA in a child can include:
- a bump that is red, swollen, and hot
- a bump that is painful, possibly only when touched
- skin around a sore that is warm or hot
- a boil full of pus
- an abscess, which is a larger boil
- a sore that looks like a spider bite
- bumps under the skin that are swollen and hard
- a bump that does not heal
In some cases, the child may also have a fever.
A parent or caregiver should never try to treat MRSA at home.
Anyone who suspects MRSA should contact a doctor for advice right away because the bacteria can spread very quickly and make the child seriously ill.
Medical treatments for MRSA
If the infection is mild, a doctor may:
- Open the sore and thoroughly drain the pus.
- Prescribe antibiotics for the child to take by mouth. Although MRSA is resistant to some common antibiotics, it does respond to others.
- Prescribe an antibiotic ointment.
- Suggest that the child washes with an antibacterial soap or antiseptic skin wash.
If the infection is more severe, the child may have to be admitted to the hospital. The doctors there may use:
- Intravenous antibiotics, which are fed directly into the child's vein through a small plastic tube.
- Minor surgery to drain the infection from the body.
How to manage MRSA at home
Applying clean, dry bandages over the affected area will help prevent the bacteria from spreading.
After a doctor has provided treatment, parents and caregivers should take the following steps to prevent the bacteria from spreading to others or reinfecting the child:
- applying clean, dry bandages over the affected area, and changing them daily
- always putting the old bandages in the trash and washing the hands thoroughly
- washing the child's clothes, towels, and sheets
- cleaning the surfaces that the child has touched, including washbasins and door handles, where MRSA can live
- cleaning and disinfecting the child's toys
- making sure the child washes their hands frequently, especially after touching the affected area
It is important to remember that, if the doctor has prescribed antibiotics, the child must take every dose, even if they seem to have recovered.
When to see a doctor
If a child receives treatment early, MRSA usually remains a mild skin infection. But if left untreated, it can make the child seriously ill, and may even lead to death.
In 2017, researchers published the results of a study concerning 232 cases of MRSA in people aged 18 years or younger who were admitted to one of three hospitals in the United States.
The authors found that each day that the infection went untreated, the risk of complications grew, the infection became harder to treat, and it was more likely to spread to other parts of the body.
It is essential that a doctor checks a child right away if they show any of the above symptoms.
Also, seek urgent medical attention if a child has an infected sore and:
- a fever
- chills or a headache
- a rash
Risks and complications in children
MRSA infection still occurs within hospitals and healthcare centers.
If a child does not receive treatment, the infection can spread through the body quickly and lead to serious complications, such as:
- infection of joints and bones
- blood poisoning
Under certain conditions, untreated MRSA can be fatal.
Results of the study from 2017 indicate that children may be less likely than adults to die from a MRSA infection. However, their risk of complications was comparatively higher, and children may be more likely than adults to have to return to the hospital within 30 days of leaving it.
In 2013, researchers published findings concerning U.S. trends in invasive MRSA, which is MRSA that has spread to other parts of the body.
The authors concluded that this type of infection is more common in infants younger than 90 days, compared to older infants. They also found that invasive MRSA was more common in African-American children, compared to those of other races.
According to the findings of a study published in June 2018, MRSA is a predominant cause of bone and joint infections in children. These types of infections are responsible for a significant proportion of hospital admissions among children.
Washing hands regularly with soap and warm water is one of the best ways to prevent the spread of MRSA.
One of the best ways to prevent the spread of MRSA is to teach children to wash their hands regularly with soap and warm water, especially after using the restroom and before eating.
It can be challenging to teach children the importance of washing their hands. The charity MRSA action UK has some helpful tips to make hand-washing fun, including:
- turning it into a game, or associating it with a song
- having fun soaps
- keeping a handwashing chart
- using homemade posters for encouragement
Parents and caregivers can also help by:
- teaching children to never share towels, washcloths, or other personal items
- using clean, dry bandages to cover cuts and scrapes
- teaching children not to scratch or pick at sores
The authors of the study from June 2018 concluded that MRSA continues to be a major cause of pediatric illness, and sometimes death, in the U.S. and throughout the world.
A child can contract MRSA in hospitals and healthcare centers, but the infection can also pass through skin-to-skin contact, during play, at school, or at daycare, for example.
If a doctor treats it in time, MRSA can occur as a mild skin infection. However, if it spreads unchecked throughout the body, the infection can make the child seriously ill and be very difficult to treat.
The best way to prevent MRSA from spreading among children is to teach good hygiene practices and to show any skin infections or sores to a doctor.