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What is Staphylococcus Bacteria?

Mary McMahon
Updated May 17, 2024
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Staphylococcus bacteria is bacteria in the Staphylococcus genus, a very common bacterial genus which is very widely distributed throughout the world, making it a familiar sight in doctors offices and labs. In fact, you are hosting a few Staphylococcus species right this very minute, because these bacteria are part of the body's natural bacterial fauna. The most famous Staphylococcus species is probably S. aureus, the bacterium responsible for the well known “staph” infections which plague people of all ages.

Under a microscope, staph bacteria look like little clusters of marbles, explaining the “coccus” in the name, a reference to a Greek word meaning “berry.” Many bacterial species share this distinctive round shape, which is why several genera have the “coccus” suffix. These spherical bacteria are Gram positive, which means that when a Gram stain is applied, the bacteria turn bright violet, making them very easy to see under a microscope.

Some Staphylococcus species are part of the natural fauna present on the body, and they are found readily on the skin and around the mucus membranes. In the case of the infamous S. aureus, the bacteria can contribute to the development of opportunistic infections if it senses a weak point in the body such as a cut. An infection with Staphylococcus can cause boils, skin infections, abscesses, and ulcerations, and in large quantities, the bacteria can cause toxic shock syndrome, a serious complication of bacterial infection.

People pass Staphylococcus bacteria between each other with casual physical contact, and the bacteria can also transfer to things which people handle, like doorknobs, bedding, countertops, and taps. This is a major problem in hospitals, where controlling the spread of antibiotic-resistant Staphylococcus bacteria has become a huge issue. Staphylococcus can also colonize poorly-handled food, causing food poisoning, and some species are naturally present in the soil. All told, there are around 30 known species of Staphylococcus.

A conventional Staphylococcus infection can be treated with antibiotics, which may be administered orally or applied directly to the site of a skin infection in the form of a topical cream. However, Staphylococcus is a very crafty bacterial genus, and a number of strains have developed antibiotic resistance, which means that the infection may not always respond to treatment. It may take several forms of antibiotics to find a version which can attack the bacteria effectively. Methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus (MRSA) is a major issue in hospitals worldwide.

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Mary McMahon
By Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a WiseGeek researcher and writer. Mary has a liberal arts degree from Goddard College and spends her free time reading, cooking, and exploring the great outdoors.

Discussion Comments

By anon156349 — On Feb 26, 2011

I've had staph infections since i was 14. I am now 37 was wondering if there's any other treatment apart from creams and antibiotics.

By anon129802 — On Nov 25, 2010

i have an infection in my right thigh. it started like a boil and now it burst and small flesh is coming out. so disgusting. can you help me with this? my obgyn gave me cloxacillin as prescription.

By anon127944 — On Nov 17, 2010

I am a college student who has recently moved to a dorm. I have gotten a total of four boils so far this semester, and they are painful as well as hideous. I am wondering if this could be a result of my new diet in the dorm hall, or if living here has just made my hygiene worse.

any suggestions?

By anon111412 — On Sep 16, 2010

I have always heard that eczema was not contagious.

By Charlie89 — On Jul 14, 2010

@CopperPipe -- Prevention is key with staph infections. Basically, just make sure you wash your hands regularly, and don't share bathroom stuff -- you know, razors, towels, etc.

Also, you should make sure all your food is properly stored and cooked to avoid getting staph food poisoning.

People who have staph should clean and cover their wound, avoid touching other people until it clears up, and drink more water to help the body get rid of the bacteria.

By CopperPipe — On Jul 14, 2010

That all sounds pretty nasty. How can I avoid getting a staph infection, or how can someone stop from spreading it if they have one?

By Charlie89 — On Jul 14, 2010

@anon87223 -- Eczema itself is not contagious. However, it is common for people with eczema to get a staph infection due to a combination of compromised immune system and the scratching that naturally comes with eczema, which often breaks the skin and opens the body to infection.

A staph infection is contagious if the wound is weeping or draining, and the wound or discharge makes contact with another person who is susceptible -- for instance, someone with a cut or abrasion.

So although eczema is not contagious, the staph that sometimes comes with it is. Anyone who thinks they may have a staph infection along with eczema, it is important to cover the wound so as not to spread the infection, and get it treated right away.

By anon87223 — On May 28, 2010

does this mean that eczema is contagious? I was told by several doctors that it wasn't. What's the truth?

Mary McMahon

Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a...

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