Medicine for the Outdoors
Medicine for the Outdoors

Dr. Paul Auerbach is the world's leading outdoor health expert. His blog offers tips on outdoor safety and advice on how to handle wilderness emergencies.

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The Staphyloccus aureus bacteria has long been a cause of skin and soft tissue infections in humans. Recently, however, the bacteria has become more of a problem because it has become resistant to the antibiotic methicillin. Thus, we now have methicillin-resistant S. aureus, commonly known by its abbreviation, “MRSA.” Initially, MRSA was found in hospitals, where patients exposed to S. aureus (“staph”) germs developed infections with bacteria that had become resistant to antibiotics, presumably due to the co-existence of bacteria and antibiotics found in health care facilities.

The situation has taken a turn for the worse, because doctors are now seeing MRSA infections that are acquired outside of the hospital. These are known as “community acquired” infections. I have been made aware of a few infections that seem to have been acquired in the outdoors. In one case, it was almost certainly acquired from a wet suit worn by a surfer.

These infections do not respond to the antibiotics we used to use for “routine” (non-MRSA) infections. Instead, they must be treated with antibiotics such as trimethoprim-sulfamethoxazole, tetracycline, or vancomycin. In the future, they may become resistant to these antibiotics and we will have to hope that other drugs prove effective.

The appearance of a MRSA infection may resemble that of a spider bite, in that there may be evidence of tissue destruction. The best prevention is good hygiene, including washing skin on a regular basis, using clean clothing and linens, and washing all cuts and scrapes thoroughly with soap and disinfected water. Using an antiseptic ointment, such as bacitracin, on open wounds may not prevent a MRSA infection, but will certainly help prevent other Staphylococcus infections and Streptococcus (“strep”) skin infections.

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photo by Paul Auerbach
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About the Author

Dr. Paul S. Auerbach is the world’s leading authority on wilderness medicine.