Are Staph Infections Contagious?

Staphylococcus aureus (staph) is a bacteria that normally resides on people's skin without causing problems. However, it can cause an infection when it gets under the skin or into the bloodstream. It is highly contagious and can easily spread through certain types of contact.

This article discusses the symptoms of a staph infection, how it spreads, treatment, and prevention.

What to Know About Staph Infections

Verywell / Gary Ferster

What Is Staph?

There are many different types of the bacteria Staphylococcus. The strain that most commonly causes infection in humans is Staphylococcus aureus.

The skin is the most common disease site, but the bacteria can also cause problems in the digestive tract, bones, lungs, and heart.

A severe infection occurs when the bacteria enter the bloodstream and release toxins that cause a condition called sepsis, a powerful response by the body in fighting bacterial blood poisoning.

Symptoms

Staph can affect many parts of the body, but it often causes a skin infection. The following are possible outcomes and symptoms from a staph infection:

  • Cellulitis: When staph infects the skin, it can cause swelling, redness, pain, and localized warmth.
  • Impetigo: Symptoms include small sores or blisters surrounded by a yellow crust. Impetigo most commonly occurs in children.
  • Folliculitis: Symptoms include pimples and blisters under hair follicles, typically in the armpit.
  • Abscess: A staph skin infection can be deep and lead to an abscess or boil with pus under the skin.
  • Gastroenteritis: When staph enters the digestive tract, it causes vomiting and diarrhea.
  • Mastitis: This causes pain, redness, and swelling of the breast in breastfeeding people.
  • Pneumonia: Staph pneumonia presents with cough, fever, and shortness of breath. It most commonly occurs in people with underlying lung disease or who need a ventilator to breathe.
  • Endocarditis: The bacteria can accumulate inside the heart muscle, particularly in people who use illegal injection drugs. This type of infection is called endocarditis, and symptoms include fever, weight loss, and a heart murmur.
  • Osteomyelitis: Staph can spread from one part of the body to the bones and joints and lead to deep bone pain.
  • Sepsis: When a person develops a staph infection in the blood, sepsis, or blood poisoning, occurs. Symptoms include fever, lethargy, fast heart rate, and low blood pressure.

Is a Staph Infection Contagious?

A staph skin infection develops when there is a break in the skin. A staph wound is highly contagious through skin-to-skin contact, particularly in crowded living situations or high contact sports.

Keep Wounds Covered

People with a staph skin infection should keep any wounds covered until healed to avoid spreading the bacteria to other people and onto surfaces.

People can also contract the bacteria by sharing towels, clothing, and razors, and it can spread from high-contact areas like door handles, athletic equipment, and remotes. Staph can survive on linens for days to weeks.

One study showed that staph could survive on dry surfaces for months. This highlights the importance of disinfecting surfaces and frequently washing your hands.

Staph infection of the digestive tract occurs after ingesting food that has the bacteria. The bacteria gets into the food from someone with unclean hands who has an infection. Cooking kills the bacteria, but there are toxins that stay in the food and cause stomach symptoms.

Staph pneumonia most often occurs in hospitalized people, those who recently had surgery, or with chronic health conditions like diabetes or a weakened immune system. The bacteria spread from medical equipment, bed rails, and unclean hands in healthcare settings.

Staph infection of the heart is often caused by injection drug use or sharing used needles. A severe staph blood infection can occur in this situation or when another more mild infection spreads out of control.

Limiting the Spread in Healthcare Facilities

Hospital systems have several policies and strategies in place to limit the spread of staph in their facilities.

Treatment

The majority of staph infections require antibiotic treatment.

Healthcare providers treat a mild skin infection like impetigo with a topical antibiotic such as mupirocin. More significant infections like cellulitis, folliculitis, and mastitis require oral antibiotics.

Treatment options depend on the likelihood of bacterial resistance in a particular community.

MRSA

Methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus (MRSA) is a type of staph that causes an infection that is difficult to treat because it is resistant to certain antibiotics.

The best oral antibiotic options for staph that are not resistant to common antibiotics are cephalexin and dicloxacillin. If a healthcare provider has concerns about MRSA, trimethoprim/sulfamethoxazole, doxycycline, and clindamycin are the best options.

Skin infections that develop into boils or abscesses usually require incision and drainage.

People who develop more severe infections like pneumonia, osteomyelitis, endocarditis, or sepsis need intravenous antibiotics. The best options include ceftriaxone, vancomycin, or linezolid.

Still, others might even require surgery to clear out the infection.

Prevention

There are several ways to prevent a staph infection, including:

  • Use good hygiene that includes washing your hands often.
  • Limit the sharing of towels, linens, and clothing with someone who has an infection.
  • Clean athletic equipment before and after use.
  • If you have an open wound, keep it covered to avoid spreading an infection to someone else.
  • Avoid handling and preparing food for other people when you have an infection.

When to See a Provider

Always contact your healthcare provider if you think you have developed a staph infection, as they often require topical or oral antibiotic treatment. If these infections are not managed appropriately, they can become life-threatening.

Summary

Staphylococcus aureus is a bacteria that normally resides on the skin without causing any problems. However, it can lead to several different infections such as cellulitis, impetigo, folliculitis, mastitis, endocarditis, pneumonia, osteomyelitis, and sepsis.

People with a suspected staph infection should contact their healthcare provider because antibiotics are often needed. There are several ways to prevent spreading staph infections, which are highly contagious.

A Word From Verywell

Staph can lead to many different types of infections, but not all of them are serious. Staph is contagious, so it is vital to wash your hands and avoid contact with people who have an active infection. Staph infections are easily treatable before the infection turns severe. Contact your healthcare provider right away if you think you have a staph infection.

Frequently Asked Questions

  • What does staph infection look like?

    A staph skin infection looks like many other skin infections with redness, swelling, warmth, and pain. Sometimes there is a yellow crust around a small pimple. A deeper staph infection can form an abscess that is swollen and soft in the middle.

  • Can you cure a staph infection without antibiotics?

    Minor staph infections of the skin, like impetigo or mild cellulitis, can often heal on their own with good hygiene maintenance. However, if the condition seems to be getting worse, topical or oral antibiotics might be needed. An uncomplicated staph abscess sometimes only requires incision and drainage and does not need antibiotics. It is best to have a healthcare provider decide if antibiotics are necessary.

Was this page helpful?
11 Sources
Verywell Health uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
  1. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Staph infections can kill.

  2. MedlinePlus. Staphyloccal infections.

  3. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Healthcare-associated infections (HAIs): Staphylococcus aureus in healthcare settings.

  4. Tong SY, Davis JS, Eichenberger E, Holland TL, Fowler VG Jr. Staphylococcus aureus infections: epidemiology, pathophysiology, clinical manifestations, and management. Clin Microbiol Rev. 2015;28(3):603-661. doi:10.1128/CMR.00134-14

  5. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. MRSA: cleaning and disinfection.

  6. Kramer A, Schwebke I, Kampf G. How long do nosocomial pathogens persist on inanimate surfaces? A systematic review. BMC Infect Dis. 2006;6:130. doi:10.1186/1471-2334-6-130

  7. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Staphylococcal (Staph) food poisoning.

  8. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus (MRSA): for patients.

  9. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Impetigo: all you need to know.

  10. Bamberger DM, Boyd SE. Management of Staphylococcal aureus infections. Am Fam Physician. 2005;72(12):2474-2481.

  11. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. MRSA: general information.