Summer brings with it a lot of really great things: beach trips, long lazy days, and fresh food from your garden. It also brings with it an increased chance of catching MRSA, according to a new study in the American Journal of Epidemiology.
The original intent of the study was to analyze the number of hospitalizations caused by MRSA over a 10-year period. MRSA, or "methycillin-resistant staphylococcus aureus," is a group of drug-resistant bacteria that are best known for causing skin infections but can also get into your body and cause pneumonia or potentially fatal bloodstream infections. Those infections are responsible for 10,000 to 20,000 deaths per year.
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Comparing hospitalization records with diagnostic information from laboratories across the U.S., researchers at the Center for Disease Dynamics, Economics and Policy found that although MRSA infections skyrocketed from 1999 to 2005, the number has remained relatively stagnant from 2005 onward.
One of the more surprising aspects of the trends they saw, however, was that cases of MRSA caught in fitness centers, schools, and other public places—known as community-associated MRSA (or CA-MRSA)—were peaking in the summer, and the authors are fingering unnecessary use of antibiotics as the cause.
Here's what happens: In the winter, doctors hand out antibiotics for a whole slew of problems—the flu, sinus infections, ear infections in children, and other respiratory infections, most of which are caused by viruses that don't respond to antibiotics. "A large portion of this antibiotic usage is inappropriate and has a tremendous effect on the spread of resistance,” says Eili Klein, PhD, lead author and fellow at the Center for Disease Dynamics, Economics and Policy. Then, in the summertime, "when you remove the antibiotic pressure, [these infections are] able to spread," he adds.
New Rule: Don't Take Antibiotics for This Common Condition
CA-MRSA infections affect children the most, Klein says, because kids are most likely to receive antibiotics in the winter. But it's concerning because strains of CA-MRSA can be more harmful than MRSA strains you might contract in hospitals. And although hospitalizations associated with CA-MRSA don't appear to be increasing, they aren't decreasing either. "And that's worrying," says Klein. CA-MRSA used to be associated with things like sharing towels in locker rooms, he adds, but now it's being spread really easily.
Your first line of defense against MRSA is to not ask for unnecessary antibiotics in the winter. Wondering if you really need an antibiotic when you're sick? See Do You Really Need That Antibiotic? Maybe Not.
CA-MRSA is spread easily through contact sports and in anyplace there's close contact with other people, such as locker rooms, day care centers, and communal living arrangements (like dorm rooms). So take extra care in the summer to follow commonsense precautions:
• Wash your hands frequently.
• Shower before and after visiting pools, hot tubs, and saunas.
• Keep any open wounds covered.
• Shower after going to the gym or participating in a sporting event, and wash your workout clothes after each visit to the gym.