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Keep Your Kid Safe From Staph Infections

Posted November 1, 2007
Updated November 13, 2007

With reports of an antibiotic-resistant staph infection on the rise, many a parent is sending a child off to school with careful instructions these days. While there is no need to panic - the infection is rarely seen in schools even though overall incidents are increasing - families can easily take some basic precautions that make good health sense.

Here's a guide to what you need to know:

 

WHAT IS STAPH?

Staph bacteria are commonly behind minor skin infections that show up as pimples or boils. Those infections can usually be treated with medication.

Methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus, called MRSA or "the superbug," does not always respond to medication, although it can also be treatable. It is mostly frequently transmitted by skin-to-skin contact, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

You should call a doctor if a sore is enlarging and has increasing drainage, says Dr. Jeffrey A. Jahre, chairman of the department of medicine at St. Luke's Hospital in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania Also call a doctor if the sore is associated with symptoms such as fever, chills, or rash.

 

WHO IS MOST AT RISK?

People with an open wound who come in contact with the staph bacteria are at highest risk to contract the infection, Jahre says.

People who play contact sports such as wrestling and football and people who live in close quarters, such as prisons, barracks and college dorms, need to exercise special care, says Dr. Richard P. Wenzel, president of the International Society for Infectious Diseases.

"Another risk factor is the popular use of this cosmetic body shaving where people cut all the hair off them," he says, "and things such as sharing common whirlpools, bar soap and towels."

But it's important to remember that most staph infections are contracted in hospital settings by people who have existing health-care problems.

Many healthy people who are infected heal on their own or with treatment, says the Health Department in New York City, where a 12-year-old boy died last month.

For example, the health department estimates there were 600 laboratory-confirmed cases of the MRSA infection among New York City 5- to 18-year-olds last year.

 

WHAT TO TELL A PRE-SCHOOLER

No need to go into details about staph infections, says Dr. Hana Solomon, a pediatrician at Solomon Family Medical Clinic in Columbia, Missouri Rather, continue to emphasize the importance of hand washing and good hygiene.

Wenzel, also chair of the department of internal medicine at Virginia Commonwealth, recommends flu vaccines for the entire family, including pre-schoolers, because contracting the flu means bacteria can enter the body more easily.

 

WHAT TO TELL AN ELEMENTARY CHIILD

Considering the spate of reports of staph infections in elementary school students, it can be scary for children in this age group.

Parents need to emphasize that the risk of contracting antibiotic-resistant staph is slim, says Solomon, but also use this as an opportunity to reinforce good hygiene practices, such as not sharing drinking glasses, tissues, and combs and of course, the importance of hand washing.

She warns against going overboard. "You don't want them to be compulsive. You want them to understand and be compliant." Wenzel adds that parents should tell children to report any wounds to the skin immediately, so they can be cleaned and covered.

 

WHAT TO TELL A HIGH SCHOOL OR COLLEGE STUDENT

Emphasize the importance of following basic hygiene, especially for those living in the dorm. Remind them not to share clothes, linens, razors, bar soap. Tell them to clean and cover open wounds and watch them closely to make sure they are healing.

If the student plays a sport, make sure there are policies to disinfect the equipment (such as gymnastic mats), says Jahre. And in the locker rooms, there should be policies in place that the students do not share personal items.

 

WHAT YOU SHOULD ASK SCHOOL OFFICIALS

Find out about the notification policy of infectious diseases in the school, says Solomon. "Schools need to notify all the participants of the community, whether a school, day care or nursing home, what diseases are going around," she says.

For younger students, ask school officials about hygiene: Does the day care/preschool emphasize hand washing? For older students, is gym equipment disinfected?

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