A staph infection occurs due to a bacterium called staphylococcus, which lives on the skin. If it enters the bloodstream through a wound, it can cause sepsis. Staph infections are contagious through person-to-person contact.

Staphylococcus is an umbrella term for more than 30 types of bacterium. This bacterium can also cause:

It can also cause skin infections and boil-like sores that may be swollen, flushed, and painful.

In this article, we discuss how contagious staph infections are, their signs and symptoms, how to avoid them, and treatments.

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Staph infections are contagious through person-to-person contact. If an individual with staph has a wound that oozes, someone who comes into contact with this liquid can contract the infection. This includes the following transmission methods:

  • close skin contact
  • sharing objects such as towels or toothbrushes
  • droplets in coughs and sneezes, though this is less common

People with staph infections who prepare food for others can pass on the infection through improper food handling. Food handlers with skin staph infections should therefore avoid handling food until a doctor determines their infection is no longer active.

Risk factors

Some people are at greater risk of developing staph infections. This includes those who:

  • have had surgery
  • are staying in healthcare facilities
  • have medical devices, such as an intravenous line, in their body
  • inject drugs
  • have been in close contact with a person who has staph

Staph bacterium is alive and contagious when present on the skin. On objects or materials, it can survive for 24 hours or longer.

Therefore, to protect others, it is crucial to cover sores or lesions. People should also wash their hands thoroughly and regularly and avoid close physical contact with others.

Staph infections on the skin may initially appear like a bump or pimple but can quickly grow. They may cause:

  • flushed skin
  • swelling
  • pain
  • warmth
  • pus
  • fever

Learn about the symptoms of MRSA staph, which is resistant to some antibiotics.

Additionally, do not pop a sore that looks like this, as it can worsen the infection. It can be difficult to tell if a bump is a staph infection, so consult with a doctor if a person has these symptoms.

Other types of staph infections will have a variety of symptoms.

Staph infections travel easily from one person to another on objects or through skin-to-skin contact. However, there are some ways to help minimize the chances of spreading a staph infection, including the below.

  • Wash regularly, particularly after exercise.
  • Cover cuts, scrapes, and wounds with a clean bandage to prevent bacteria from entering.
  • Do not share personal items such as towels and sheets.
  • Seek medical help early if you think you have an infection.

If someone in the household has a staph infection, everyone in the home needs to practice good hygiene. This may include taking the below steps.

  • Washing hands frequently using soap and water or an alcohol-based hand sanitizer, especially after changing a bandage or touching the clothing of a person with the infection.
  • A person with the staph infection needs to cover the wound with clean, dry bandages. They should not touch, pop, or pick at the sore. Dispose of dirty bandages directly into the trash.
  • Wash the clothes of the person with the infection in hot water or bleach, when possible, to kill bacteria. Drying with heat, rather than airdrying, will also help.
  • Clean shared objects, such as doorknobs, light switches, and remote controls, regularly.
  • Do not share personal items such as towels, clothing, or razors.

Dogs can pass a staph infection to humans through contact with a wound or dog bite. Dogs are very similar to humans in relation to staph — the bacterium lives on their skin and in their nose and can cause skin and systemic infections.

Dog owners who are treating their pet’s staph infection should take extra care to prevent touching their skin that carries the infection. Wearing gloves and practicing proper handwashing are also important while changing bandages, grooming, petting, or playing with the dog.

A person should also properly dispose of soiled bandages and any toys that may have come in contact with the affected area of the dog. Alternatively, a person could sanitize any toys the animal has used.

Staph bacterium cannot survive in water that is properly chemically treated. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) state that there have been no reports of methicillin-resistant staphylococcus aureus (MRSA) — a serious form of staph resistant to antibiotics — that has spread through the water at recreational pools.

However, a person could still acquire this infection from someone at a pool through direct contact or by touching a contaminated object such as a seat or towel. To avoid this:

  • Do not share personal items such as towels or razors.
  • Cover cuts and scrapes with clean bandages.
  • Ask water facility operators about cleaning procedures to see how often they:
    • wash towels
    • sanitize frequently touched surfaces
    • balance disinfectant levels in the water
  • Avoid recreational pools if you have a staph infection.

Minor staph infections may clear up on their own, but they may require medical intervention and treatment with antibiotics. This can help stop them from worsening, spreading, or coming back.

If a person has a skin staph infection, they may receive antibiotics in pill, liquid, cream, gel, or ointment form. Other types of staph infections could require intravenous antibiotics.

Additionally, a doctor may choose to drain the sore if required. If the infection is in a bone, surgery could be necessary to clean out the infection.

When antibiotics are involved, finishing the entire course is vital, even if a person begins to feel better before they complete the final dose.

Once a person finishes their course of antibiotics, they need to discard any remaining medication properly and avoid using leftover medication to treat future infections. They should also seek medical care to see if additional antibiotics are required if the condition recurs in the future.

Staph infections are contagious through direct contact with the affected site or contact with an object where staph bacterium is still present.

Staph enters the body through cuts, scrapes, and wounds, so covering these with clean bandages can help provide protection.

If a person has symptoms of a staph infection, they should contact a doctor at their earliest opportunity for treatment. Early treatment with antibiotics can prevent a more serious infection.