Meticillin-resistant Staphylococcus Aureus (MRSA)

oPatientPlus articles are written by UK doctors and are based on research evidence, UK and European Guidelines. They are designed for health professionals to use, so you may find the language more technical than the condition leaflets.

Staphylococcus aureus is a Gram-positive bacterium that colonises the skin,and nasal carriage occurs in about 25-30% of healthy people. Meticillin-resistant S. aureus (MRSA) is usually acquired during exposure to hospitals and other healthcare facilities and causes a variety of serious healthcare-associated infections.[1] However, 1-3% of the total population are colonised with MRSA and in most cases no treatment is necessary as colonisation does not lead to any harmful infection.[2] 

Meticillin resistance is clinically very important because a single genetic element confers resistance to the the beta-lactam antibiotics, which include penicillins, cephalosporins and carbapenems.[3] Over the period of 20 to 30 years, MRSA strains have been present in hospitals - hospital-acquired MRSA (HA-MRSA); they have become a major cause of hospital-acquired infection. Community-acquired MRSA (CA-MRSA) emerged worldwide in the late 1990s.[4] 

Most MRSA infections in the UK that appear to have a community onset occur in patients who are found to have had direct or indirect contact with hospitals, care homes or other healthcare facilities. These MRSA strains are typical of the local HA-MRSA and may be carried asymptomatically by patients for months after discharge. However, new strains of MRSA have recently emerged that cause infections in community patients who have no previous history of direct or indirect healthcare contact.

CA-MRSA strains are genetically and phenotypically distinct from HA-MRSA. They often produce Panton-Valentine leukocidin (PVL) and PVL-producing strains of CA-MRSA appear to be associated with increased risk of transmission, complications and hospitalisation.[1] See also separate article PVL-positive Staphylococcus Aureus.

Spread from person to person is by direct contact with the skin or via a contaminated environment or equipment. Staphylococci that are shed into the environment may survive for long periods in dust. Skin scales may contaminate if they become airborne - eg, during activities such as bed-making, or if the affected person is heavily colonised or has a condition such as eczema which causes shedding of high numbers of organisms.

The Department of Health issued The Matron's Charter: An Action Plan for Cleaner Hospitals, in October 2004.[5]

The surveillance of MRSA in the UK is a mandatory scheme run by the Department of Health.[6]

  • About 30% of the UK population are colonised with S. aureus,and 1-3% of the total population are colonised with MRSA.[2]
  • Meticillin resistance rates of S. aureus vary considerably between countries. In the USA the figure is reported as 0.8-1.2% in the general population although in HIV-positive individuals it has been found to be as high as 10-17%.[7] The figure in long-term facilities in France was 38%.[8] 
  • Data from the English National Point Prevalence Survey on Healthcare-associated Infections and Antimicrobial Use showed a sharp drop of healthcare-associated MRSA bacteraemia (ie acquired in hospital or other healthcare facility) from 1.8% of patients with MRSA bacteraemia in 2006 to less than 0.1%.in 2011.[9] 
  • Community-acquired infection from human sources seems to be on the rise in America. This has not been mirrored in Europe but an increase in infection from farm animals has been detected.[10] 
  • Before April 2013 primary care organisations (PCOs) were required to produce monthly reports of the number of cases of MRSA bacteraemia. After this date, data production was taken over by clinical commissioning groups (CCGs).[11] The obligation to produce mandatory reports was substituted by a requirement for all NHS organisations to complete a Post Infection Review (PIR). Monthly MRSA bacteraemia data are now published on the basis of relevant PIR assignments (acute trust or CCG).[12] 

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Risk factors[13] 

  • MRSA is one of the most prevalent micro-organisms involved with healthcare-associated infections. It is usually confined to hospitals and in particular to vulnerable or debilitated patients.
  • Some nursing homes have experienced problems with MRSA.
  • MRSA does not pose a risk to hospital staff (unless they are suffering from a debilitating disease) or to family members of an affected patient or to their close social or work contacts.[6]
  • Healthcare-associated MRSA infections arise in individuals with predisposing risk factors (eg, surgery or presence of an indwelling medical device) but many community-associated MRSA infections arise in otherwise healthy individuals who do not have such risk factors.[14] Specific risk factors for MRSA include:[2]
    • Critical or chronic illness, if also elderly or debilitated.
    • Presence of surgical wounds, open ulcers, intravenous lines and catheter lines.
    • Presence of an infected pressure sore.
    • History of MRSA colonisation or infection, or recent surgery.
    • Recent discharge from hospital.
    • Regular nursing home contact or a nursing home resident.
    • Recent antibiotic use (especially cephalosporins, fluoroquinolones and macrolides).
    • Dialysis.
    • Presence of a permanent indwelling urinary catheter.
    • HIV positivity (especially if young, male, recent incarceration in prison).[15] 
  • HA-MRSA carriage has been found to be common at the time of discharge and one study found that transmission occurred in nearly 20% of household contacts (particularly associated with older age).[16]
  • Although HA-MRSA is more common in elderly, debilitated and/or critically or chronically ill patients, CA-MRSA is more often seen in young, healthy people; students, professional athletes and military service personnel.[1]
  • Risk factors for CA-MRSA skin infection include exposure to prisons, occupations or recreational activities with regular skin-to-skin contact (eg, wrestling), exposure to someone with MRSA or prior incarceration, exposure to antibiotics, intravenous drug abuse, recurrent skin infections and living in a crowded environment.
  • Rapid diagnosis of hospital-acquired infection is essential in order to start appropriate treatment early and also initiate procedures to prevent the spread of MRSA.
  • Molecular testing methods (polymerase chain reaction (PCR) tests) are now available to identify MRSA within several hours. PCR from culture samples may be used to detect the mecA gene, confirming the presence of MRSA. Fully automated commercial tests are now available.[17] 
  • MRSA DNA has now been decoded and a test based on two duplex reactions run simultaneously can detect MRSA, meticillin-resistant coagulase negative staphylococci and meticillin-susceptible S. aureus (MSSA).[18] 
  • A PCR-free test available at the point of care has been developed.[19] 

There is evidence that concerted efforts that include surveillance cultures, contact precautions and isolation in hospitals can reduce MRSA even in endemic settings.[13] No one measure to control the spread of MRSA has proved to be effective. However, comprehensive MRSA control programmes, which have included screening cultures to detect patients (and in many instances staff) colonised with MRSA, use of contact precautions, appropriate hand hygiene and automatic alerts of re-admission of colonised patients, have reported success in controlling or reducing transmission of MRSA and also reduced acquisition of MRSA in high-risk units in hospitals. Further research on cost-effectiveness is required but evidence to date suggests that proactive measures to control the spread of MRSA in healthcare facilities are worth pursuing.[20] 

  • Healthcare workers who are nasal carriers can serve as sources of MRSA transmission, although they are not nearly as important a reservoir as are colonised or infected patients. The cost-effectiveness of introducing routine screening of all healthcare workers requires further research.[21] 
  • Screening of patients by culture of samples from body sites, such as the anterior nares, alone will identify 80% and screening from additional body sites will increase the sensitivity to over 92%.[22] There is evidence that screening of high-risk patients, combined with other measures such as contact precautions, appropriate hand hygiene and education of personnel, can reduce transmission of MRSA, even in facilities where it is highly endemic.[13] Screening of all patients admitted to intensive care units has been mandatory in England and Wales since 2010 and many hospitals have pre-admission screening policies for all patients prior to planned elective surgery.[13][23] 
  • Patients colonised or infected with MRSA should, whenever possible, be placed in a separate room, or kept with other patients who have MRSA.[20] 
  • Transient contamination of healthcare workers' hands is widely believed to be the predominant method by which MRSA is transmitted to patients. Because healthcare workers' hands can become contaminated even when gloves are worn, hand hygiene is recommended after glove removal. Alcohol gel or other hand hygiene solutions are advocated as being easier and faster to use than soap and water.[13] 
  • It is not generally thought necessary to treat patients or staff who are colonised, although further research is required.[13][20] 

Drugs[1][24]

  • Before treating, clinicians should seek advice from a local microbiologist. If MRSA is suspected because of previous colonisation/isolation, or is surgical/healthcare-related, it is very important to collect a microbiology sample.
  • Rifampicin or sodium fusidate should not be used alone because resistance may develop rapidly.
  • Skin and soft-tissue infections:
    • Incision and drainage without the use of antibiotics may be sufficient treatment for small abscesses.
    • A tetracycline alone or a combination of rifampicin and sodium fusidate can be used for skin and soft tissue infections caused by MRSA; clindamycin alone is an alternative.
    • A glycopeptide (vancomycin or teicoplanin) can be used for severe skin and soft tissue infections associated with MRSA; linezolid can be used on expert advice if a glycopeptides is not suitable.
    • A combination of a glycopeptide and sodium fusidate or a glycopeptide and rifampicin can be considered for skin and soft tissue infections that have failed to respond to a single antibacterial agent.
    • Tigecycline and daptomycin are licensed for the treatment of complicated skin and soft tissue infections involving MRSA.
  • Respiratory tract infections:
    • A tetracycline or clindamycin can be used for bronchiectasis caused by MRSA.
    • A glycopeptide can be used for pneumonia associated with MRSA; if a glycopeptide is unsuitable, linezolid can be used on expert advice.
  • Urinary tract infections
    • A tetracycline can be used for urinary tract infections caused by MRSA; trimethoprim or nitrofurantoin are alternatives.
    • A glycopeptide can be used for urinary tract infections that are severe or resistant to other antibacterial agents.
  • Other infections:
    • A glycopeptide can be used for septicaemia associated with MRSA.
    • Endocarditis: vancomycin and low-dose gentamicin.
    • Osteomyelitis: vancomycin - consider adding fusidic acid or rifampicin for an initial two weeks. Suggested duration of treatment is six weeks for acute infection.
    • Septic arthritis: vancomycin. Suggested duration of treatment is six weeks.
  • Prophylaxis with vancomycin or teicoplanin (alone or in combination with another antibacterial agent active against other pathogens) is appropriate for patients undergoing surgery if:
    • There is a history of MRSA colonisation or infection without documented eradication.
    • There is a risk that the patient's MRSA carriage has recurred.
    • The patient comes from an area with a high prevalence of MRSA.
  • Mupirocin nasal ointment should be reserved for the eradication (in both patients and staff) of nasal carriage of MRSA. Alternative preparations such as chlorhexidine and neomycin cream (Naseptin®) should be considered if infection persists after two courses of mupirocin or if swabs confirm mupirocin resistance.

Care in the community

While the risk of serious infection with MRSA is low in the community, it still exists. In 1996, the Department of Health issued guidelines for managing MRSA in nursing and residential homes. Further guidance was published by the British Society for Antimicrobial Chemotherapy Working Party on Community-onset MRSA Infections in 2008 and general guidance on prevention and control of infection in care homes was published by the Department of Health in 2013.[25][26] 

  • Standard infection control procedures are important. MRSA-positive patients should not be isolated in community homes; instead, patients should socialise as normal. However, they should not share a room if they have a chronic open wound or invasive device, such as a urinary catheter.
  • In the patient's own home there should be no restrictions to a normal life and people with MRSA can work and socialise as usual. They do not need to restrict contact with friends, children or the elderly. If they are admitted to hospital, where the risk of infection is increased, the ward should be informed so the patient is screened on admission and nursed appropriately.
  • Community healthcare workers should practise standard infection control precautions, such as aseptic technique for wound care. They must decontaminate their hands before and after giving care, either by using soap and water or an alcohol hand rub.

MRSA is no more dangerous or virulent than other varieties of S. aureus but it is much more difficult to treat because the range of antibiotics which are effective against it is reduced.

All NHS patients going into hospital for a relevant planned procedure are now screened for MRSA beforehand.

Healthcare workers[27][28][29]

Guidelines vary for screening of healthcare workers for MRSA but it is essential that all healthcare workers closely follow local guidelines. It has been shown that healthcare workers are a significant source of MRSA on hospital wards, especially from nasal and hand colonisation. Hand hygiene is particularly important even when in contact with presumed 'low-risk' sources in the patient's environment such as medical notes and computers. Healthcare workers should therefore not work while known to be MRSA-positive, particularly if they are dressing wounds, treating surgical patients or dealing with physically vulnerable patients.

To help prevent the spread of MRSA in a healthcare setting:[13][30] 

  • Hand cleansing using soap and water, alcohol gel or other hand cleansing solution should be carried out regularly.
  • Topical treatments such as chlorhexidine should be applied to the skin of colonised patients.
  • Keep the environment as clean and dry as possible.[31]
  • Wear gloves when managing wounds. After removing gloves, wash hands with soap and warm water, or use alcohol-based hand sanitiser.
  • Carefully dispose of dressings and other materials that come into contact with blood, nasal discharge, urine, or pus from patients infected with MRSA.
  • Clean surfaces in examination rooms, with commercial disinfectant or a 1:100 solution of diluted bleach.
  • Equipment in regular use such as blood pressure cuffs can be a significant source of infection and should be cleansed regularly.[32] 
  • Nasal carriage is usually transient, in some cases lasting only a matter of hours. Therefore, routine screening of staff for MRSA carriage is not recommended. Local guidelines may vary but there may be merit in screening staff for persistent colonisation (including nasal, throat and groin swabs) as they come on duty.[30] 

Further reading & references

  • Malachowa N, DeLeo FR; Mobile genetic elements of Staphylococcus aureus. Cell Mol Life Sci. 2010 Sep;67(18):3057-71. doi: 10.1007/s00018-010-0389-4. Epub 2010 Jul 29.
  • Gupta K, Martinello RA, Young M, et al; MRSA nasal carriage patterns and the subsequent risk of conversion between patterns, infection, and death. PLoS One. 2013;8(1):e53674. doi: 10.1371/journal.pone.0053674. Epub 2013 Jan 10.
  1. Guidelines for UK practice for the diagnosis and management of methicillin-resistant staphylococcus aureus MRSA infections presenting in the community; Journal of Antimicrobial Chemotherapy (2008)
  2. MRSA in primary care; NICE CKS, January 2009
  3. Grundmann H, Aires-de-Sousa M, Boyce J, et al; Emergence and resurgence of meticillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus as a public-health threat. Lancet. 2006 Sep 2;368(9538):874-85.
  4. Otto M; Community-associated MRSA: a dangerous epidemic. Future Microbiol. 2007 Oct;2(5):457-9.
  5. A matron's charter: An action plan for cleaner hospitals; Dept of Health, October 2004
  6. Staphylococcus aureus; Public Health England
  7. Peters PJ, Brooks JT, McAllister SK, et al; Methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus colonization of the groin and risk for clinical infection among HIV-infected adults. Emerg Infect Dis. 2013 Apr;19(4):623-9. doi: 10.3201/eid1904.121353.
  8. Kock R, Becker K, Cookson B, et al; Methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus (MRSA): burden of disease and control challenges in Europe. Euro Surveill. 2010 Oct 14;15(41):19688.
  9. English National Point Prevalence Survey on Healthcare-associated Infections and Antimicrobial Use, 2011; Health Protection Agency (now Public Health England)
  10. Seaman A; Hospital-acquired MRSA infection rates falling: CDC, Reuters, 2013.
  11. Mandatory Surveillance of Staphylococcus aureus bacteraemia; Public Health England, 2013
  12. Post Infection Review (PIR) for Meticillin-Resistant Staphylococcus aureus (MRSA); Public Health England, 2013
  13. Frequently Asked Questions - Staphylococcus aureus; Public Health England, 2013
  14. Deleo FR, Otto M, Kreiswirth BN, et al; Community-associated meticillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus. Lancet. 2010 May 1;375(9725):1557-68. Epub 2010 Mar 5.
  15. Popovich KJ, Hota B, Aroutcheva A, et al; Community-associated methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus colonization burden in HIV-infected patients. Clin Infect Dis. 2013 Apr;56(8):1067-74. doi: 10.1093/cid/cit010. Epub 2013 Jan 16.
  16. Lucet JC, Paoletti X, Demontpion C, et al; Carriage of methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus in home care settings: Arch Intern Med. 2009 Aug 10;169(15):1372-8.
  17. Hirvonen JJ, Kaukoranta SS; GenomEra MRSA/SA, a fully automated homogeneous PCR assay for rapid detection of Staphylococcus aureus and the marker of methicillin resistance in various sample matrixes. Expert Rev Mol Diagn. 2013 Sep;13(7):655-65. doi: 10.1586/14737159.2013.820542.
  18. Seputiene V, Vilkoicaite A, Armalyte J, et al; Detection of methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus using double duplex real-time PCR and dye Syto 9. Folia Microbiol (Praha). 2010 Sep;55(5):502-7. doi: 10.1007/s12223-010-0083-9. Epub 2010 Oct 13.
  19. Corrigan DK, Schulze H, Henihan G, et al; Development of a PCR-free electrochemical point of care test for clinical detection of methicillin resistant Staphylococcus aureus (MRSA). Analyst. 2013 Oct 15;138(22):6997-7005. doi: 10.1039/c3an01319g.
  20. Worby CJ, Jeyaratnam D, Robotham JV, et al; Estimating the effectiveness of isolation and decolonization measures in reducing transmission of methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus in hospital general wards. Am J Epidemiol. 2013 Jun 1;177(11):1306-13. doi: 10.1093/aje/kws380. Epub 2013 Apr 16.
  21. Hawkins G, Stewart S, Blatchford O, et al; Should healthcare workers be screened routinely for meticillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus? A review of the evidence. J Hosp Infect. 2011 Apr;77(4):285-9. doi: 10.1016/j.jhin.2010.09.038. Epub 2011 Feb 2.
  22. Harbarth S, Schrenzel J, Renzi G, et al; Is throat screening necessary to detect methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus colonization in patients upon admission to an intensive care unit? J Clin Microbiol. 2007 Mar;45(3):1072-3. Epub 2007 Jan 17.
  23. Robotham JV, Graves N, Cookson BD, et al; Screening, isolation, and decolonisation strategies in the control of meticillin resistant Staphylococcus aureus in intensive care units: cost effectiveness evaluation. BMJ. 2011 Oct 5;343:d5694. doi: 10.1136/bmj.d5694.
  24. British National Formulary
  25. Nathwani D, Morgan M, Masterton RG, et al; Guidelines for UK practice for the diagnosis and management of methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus (MRSA) infections presenting in the community. J Antimicrob Chemother. 2008 May;61(5):976-94. Epub 2008 Mar 13.
  26. Prevention and control of infection in care homes: summary for staff; Public Health England, 2013
  27. Brady RR, McDermott C, Graham C, et al; A prevalence screen of MRSA nasal colonisation amongst UK doctors in a Eur J Clin Microbiol Infect Dis. 2009 Aug;28(8):991-5. Epub 2009 Feb 24.
  28. Haill C, Fletcher S, Archer R, et al; Prolonged outbreak of meticillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus in a cardiac surgery unit linked to a single colonized healthcare worker. J Hosp Infect. 2013 Mar;83(3):219-25. doi: 10.1016/j.jhin.2012.11.019. Epub 2013 Jan 29.
  29. FitzGerald G, Moore G, Wilson AP; Hand hygiene after touching a patient's surroundings: the opportunities most commonly missed. J Hosp Infect. 2013 May;84(1):27-31. doi: 10.1016/j.jhin.2013.01.008. Epub 2013 Mar 1.
  30. Coia JE, Duckworth GJ, Edwards DI, et al; Guidelines for the control and prevention of meticillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus (MRSA) in healthcare facilities. J Hosp Infect. 2006 May;63 Suppl 1:S1-44. Epub 2006 Apr 3.
  31. Guidance for Nursing Staff; Methicillin Resistant Staphylococcus Aureus (MRSA); Royal College of Nursing, 2005
  32. Matsuo M, Oie S, Furukawa H; Contamination of blood pressure cuffs by methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus and preventive measures. Ir J Med Sci. 2013 Dec;182(4):707-9. doi: 10.1007/s11845-013-0961-7. Epub 2013 May 3.

Disclaimer: This article is for information only and should not be used for the diagnosis or treatment of medical conditions. EMIS has used all reasonable care in compiling the information but make no warranty as to its accuracy. Consult a doctor or other health care professional for diagnosis and treatment of medical conditions. For details see our conditions.

Original Author:
Dr Colin Tidy
Current Version:
Peer Reviewer:
Dr Adrian Bonsall
Last Checked:
10/12/2013
Document ID:
1648 (v25)
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