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The Summer Skin Issue That Really Scares Me (It’s Not the Sun)

Erin Zammett Ruddy

This time of year my kids are covered in cuts and scrapes and I’m constantly monitoring them because I’m worried about staph infections. Particularly, MRSA, which is short for methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus—it’s a type of staph (a bacteria we all have on our skin) that’s learned to outsmart most antibiotics and cause sometimes-fatal infections. There’s a hospital strain that’s common and often deadly, but there’s also a community version of this superbug that can be found in gyms, schools, daycares, locker rooms and other crowded, public areas. That strain, which is on the rise, causes skin infections that can range from a nuisance to a whole lot worse.

I am pretty much a superbug expert. For starters, Alex and I have both had MRSA infections. We picked up the bug from the hospital where I delivered Al nearly five years ago. He got it from someone in the nursery and passed it to me through nursing—so I wound up with awful breast infections (super-high fevers, insane pain, engorgement beyond belief) for the first five weeks post partum. And he kept erupting with boils in his diaper area, which had to be treated with antibiotics. It was pretty much a nightmare. And MRSA is hard to kick because many doctors don’t always know what they’re dealing with (mine didn’t) and so they don’t handle the treatment properly—and it's hard to treat. Ultimately, I had to see two specialists, take five different hard-core antibiotics and have three surgical procedures on my breast. Plus we did a weeklong, house-wide decolonization. (We are all clear now, in case anyone who hangs out with us is curious).

I have since written several major magazine stories about superbugs, including this one from Shape, which details my battle with the superbug. I’m not gonna lie: MRSA freaks me out. Big time. Particularly this time of year when Alex is covered in bug bites and scrapes and scratches—the way these bacteria get into our body is through breaks in our skin. And he's hanging out with a ton of other kids in hot, crowded places who are similarly mangled and loaded with germs—MRSA spreads easily from skin to skin contact. A new study from the National Institutes of Health shows that MRSA is easily spread in the home, too, which makes it really easy to share with the whole fam (this is why it was so hard for us to kick the infection when Alex was a newborn—we just kept passing it around). So you've got to be extra diligent. All the experts I’ve talked to (and I’ve talked to everyone) say that the number one thing you can do to stay safe is to wash your hands. A lot. (Purell works, too.) Also, keep cuts and scrapes covered and avoid contact with others’ cuts and scrapes (the old "let it breathe" thinking is wrong—bandaid it up!). Do not share personal items like towels or razors or anything that comes into contact with bare skin. And use a barrier—clothes, a towel—between skin and shared items like, say, a pool chair or gym equipment. Check out more tips from the CDC.

And finally, know what to look for: MRSA usually presents as a skin infection with red, swollen boils. It can be mistaken for a spider bite. If your kid has a rash or wound that seems unusual, hurts, or doesn’t get better quickly, see your doc—stat. And if he/she doesn't bring it up, raise the possibility of MRSA. I’m sure you have all heard about the tragic loss of Rory Staunton, the 12-year-old Queens boy who got a cut on his arm and three days later died of sepsis, a blood infection. It was likely caused by bacteria (strep, not MRSA, according to the NYTimes) that got into his system through the open wound. By the time doctors realized he was septic it was too late to save his life. I recently interviewed a family with a similar story, though one with a happy ending. A MRSA infection—that started as what they thought was an ingrown hair on their 12-year-old son's thigh—turned into a full-blown attack of the boy’s immune system. He had multiple, life-saving surgeries while the antibiotics they pumped him with weren’t working because, well, these infections are resistant to most antibiotics (hence the R in MRSA). 

Speaking of antibiotics, that's the other super-important thing you can do: Take antibiotics only when needed and only as directed. That means no popping a Z-Pak just in case or begging the pediatrician for a script because you think your kid needs it despite what the culture says. I spent the early part of the spring reporting a story for Redbook on antibiotics and how our country’s misuse of them—both in human medicine and on farms—is hurtling us toward an era when antibiotics don't work anymore and superbugs, like MRSA, run rampant. (Humans are big part of the problem but—get this—70 percent of the antibiotics sold in the U.S. are used on healthy food animals to speed up their growth and to compensate for packed, unsanitary conditions). If you’ve ever taken an antibiotic or given your kids one you need to read this story. And go to Moms for Antibiotics Awareness for more on the issue and what you can do to help—like only buy meat that says "raised without antibiotics" on the package. 

The superbug issue is so mulitfaceted and I know I've flip-flopped around but this stuff has been on my mind lately and I wanted to share. Every day my kids get another scrape or cut and Alex has such bad excema in the summer that he's constantly irritated. So I'm thinking about it a lot. Anyone else worry about this stuff? Anyone going to wash their hands right now?