MRSA (short for methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus) has long been a potentially dangerous fixture in hospitals and nursing homes, where it can present as bacterial pneumonia and blood infections. Columbia's new study found that the bacteria has become endemic in American households as well.
The researchers studied 161 New Yorkers who contracted MRSA between 2009 and 2011. They discovered that the patients carried MRSA on their skin — and that their homes were "major reservoirs" for the bacteria.
Like other staph infections, MRSA can live on humans without producing symptoms. When an MRSA infection does flare up, it most commonly manifests as boils or bumps on the skin — but, it can lead to more serious issues, depending on the strain. Even after symptoms disappear, the bacteria can remain, making it possible for the infection to spread to others through skin-to-skin contact, or via a contaminated object (such as bedding or towels).
The Staphylococcus aureus bacteria was discovered in the 1880s and was treated by antibiotics like penicillin beginning in the 1940s. In the years that followed, the use of these drugs caused the bacteria to evolve strains — like MRSA — that are resistant to antibiotics. The origin of MRSA itself can be traced back to 1968; in fact, while its name indicates that the bacteria is resistant to methicillin, it's actually resistant to a whole class of antibiotics called beta-lactams, which includes amoxicillin, penicillin, and others.
While the news that an antibiotic-resistant "superbug" has made its way into private homes is pretty frightening, it might not be time to panic: According to the CDC, only 2% of people are estimated to carry MRSA. In addition, scientists have discovered a new treatment option that shows promise in the fight against the bacteria. Still, experts see the MRSA outbreak in homes as yet another example of the dangers of overprescribing antibiotics — as well as overusing antimicrobial products (which, by the way, do not prevent you from getting MRSA). So, maybe cool it with the hand sanitizer, okay? (CBS News)