It's a really bad bug, and it has the potential to do serious harm.

That's how public health officials feel about a type of bacteria known as methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus, or MRSA (pronounced MER-sa).

MRSA is resistant to treatment with many standard antibiotics, including methicillin. For that reason, a MRSA infection can sometimes be life-threatening.

The following questions, with answers from federal health authorities, will help you better understand MRSA and what you can do to reduce your risk of getting infected:

Q: What is Staphylococcus aureus?

A: Often referred to as staph, Staphylococcus aureus is a species of bacteria carried primarily on the skin or in the nose of roughly one-third of people worldwide. Most of the time staph bacteria are harmless. But sometimes they can trigger an infection. Staph is one of the most common causes of skin infections--the majority of them minor--in the U.S.

MRSA is a type of staph. Only about 1 percent of the population carries the MRSA bacteria.

Q: Besides skin infections, what other health problems can be triggered by staph bacteria?

A: Staph is a frequent cause of pneumonia, surgical wound infections and bloodstream infections.

Q: Who is at risk for a staph or MRSA infection?

A: Anyone can get a staph or MRSA infection. But some people are at increased risk for doing so, such as people living in confined areas or those who have close skin-to-skin contact with others. That includes athletes involved in football and wrestling, soldiers kept in close quarters, inmates, child care workers and residents of long-term care facilities.

Q: How do I know if I have a staph or MRSA infection?

A: Staph often enters the body through a cut or scrape and can cause a skin infection that looks like a pimple or boil. The infected site may be red, swollen and painful and may have pus or other drainage.

Sometimes a staph infection that starts on the skin will worsen and cause widespread infection. That's why it's important to contact a doctor if you think you have a staph infection.

Q: How are staph or MRSA infections treated?

A: For a mild or moderate skin infection, a doctor may simply drain the abscess or boil. You may not need an antibiotic. However, if you do need one, most staph and MRSA infections are treatable with antibiotics, though the number of antibiotics that work against MRSA is limited.

Q: What can I do to reduce my risk of getting a staph or MRSA infection?

A: The most important thing you can do is practice good hygiene. That includes:

? Keeping your hands clean by washing thoroughly with soap and water or using an alcohol-based hand sanitizer.

? Keeping cuts and scrapes clean and covered with a bandage until healed.

? Avoiding sharing personal items such as towels or razors.

? Avoiding contact with other people's wounds or bandages.

? Placing clothing or a towel between your skin and shared exercise equipment.

? Wiping surfaces of exercise equipment before and after you use them.

? Showering after working out.

Sources: National Institutes of Health; U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention

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