Staph Infection Stages: Start of Symptoms to Recovery

Recovery time varies based on the infection location and severity

Staph (staphylococcal) infections range from mild to extremely serious and even life-threatening. However, if you catch and treat it early, you can keep it from becoming more serious.

Caused by the Staphylococcus family of bacteria, staph infections can take on many forms but most often target the skin. Healing times are difficult to predict and depend on your infection type and how serious it is.

This article looks at what can make staph infections in the skin get worse, its expected stages, how to treat it, and how to keep it from spreading to other people.

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Mature woman with staph infection on face.

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Factors That Influence Staph Infection Progression

Several factors influence how staph infection spreads. These include:

  • The strain of the bacteria
  • The type and location of the infection
  • The strength of your immune system
  • How quickly you start treatment

People with compromised immune systems are especially susceptible to staph infections. This includes anyone who:

Staph infections are also more common in people who have:

The skin-to-skin contact of some sports increases your risk of staph infection, as does sharing athletic equipment.


The Staphylococcus bacteria live on most people’s skin and never cause an infection. But the bacteria can infect the area if you have broken skin from something, such as a cut, eczema, or a medical procedure.

Early on, Staphylococcus is confined to a small area, usually discolored and sore. The body can often ward off the infection at this stage. If not, it can spread until it’s treated with antibiotics.

Discoloration and Skin Tone

The discoloration of staph-related sores may vary based on your skin color. On light-colored skin, it’s likely to be pink or red. It may look purplish or simply darker than the usual skin tone on dark brown or black skin.

Early Stage Staph Infections

A staph skin infection can take many forms and can range in severity:

  • Folliculitis: A small pimple-like bump with a white head; it may have a discolored area around it. It can result from razor burn or in areas where clothing rubs against the skin.
  • Furuncle: Often called a boil; a swollen, painful bump that may be an evolution of folliculitis that’s collected more pus; may rupture and drain. Most common on the face, neck, armpits, inner thighs, and buttocks.
  • Carbuncle: A cluster of furuncles; may progress from a single furuncle; may also cause a fever and general feeling of sickness.
  • Impetigo: Most common in young children; begins as a small blister or pimple, then develops a crust that may be honey-colored; typically on the face, hands, or feet.
  • Cellulitis: Small area of pain, swelling, warmth, and discoloration; most common on the legs.
  • Infected wounds: Symptoms are similar to those of cellulitis; may cause a fever and sick feeling; may drain pus and develop a yellow crust.
  • Scalded skin syndrome: Most common in newborns and preschoolers; it starts with a small staph infection and can cause a rash, blisters, and fever. This is a serious condition and requires immediate medical attention.
  • MRSA (methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus): Staph infection that’s become resistant to the antibiotics that generally treat it.

What Is Pus?

Pus is a thick, opaque, often yellow-white fluid accumulating due to infection. It contains infectious agents (e.g., bacteria, viruses), white blood cells from the immune system’s response, and debris from surrounding tissues. It may give off a foul odor or take on a brown or green tint.

Spreading Staph Infection

Pus and inflammation accumulate as the staph-related abscess (swollen area containing pus) grows. If an abscess or blister ruptures and drains, bacteria in the pus can then spread to other sites on the skin and create multiple areas of infection.

Bacteria can also spread to the blood and other areas of the body, such as the lymphatic system

4 Stages of Staph Abscess Infection

Infection can spread in various ways; one group of scientists has proposed a description of the spread of Staph and abscess formation as a four-stage process.

  1. Traveling through the blood: When Staphylococcus is in your blood, it can create lesions (sores) in multiple locations. It can do this whether it’s free in the blood or even if it’s been absorbed by an immune-system cell called a neutrophil.
  2. Entering the tissues: The bacteria can enter tissues all over your body and cause lesions, bringing more neutrophils and other immune cells to those areas. This begins happening within three hours of entering the bloodstream.
  3. Forming capsules: To protect itself from immune cells, the bacteria form a capsule to mask itself from being recognized as such. This begins within four days of blood infection.
  4. Rupturing and spreading: Capsules eventually rupture, spilling the bacteria back into your blood and spreading to other areas.

Standard Treatment

If you suspect a staph infection, see your healthcare provider for a diagnosis so you know how to treat it.

The treatment for staph infection depends on the stage of the infection and whether the strain you have is antibiotic-resistant (as MRSA is).

Early Stage Treatment

If you or your child has a single sore or cluster of sores that a healthcare provider has diagnosed as staph infection, you can usually manage it at home by doing the following:

  • Use over-the-counter (OTC) pain relievers, such as Advil (ibuprofen), Aleve (naproxen), or Tylenol (acetaminophen).
  • Soak the abscess(es) in warm water or apply a warm compress.
  • If your healthcare provider recommends it, apply antibiotic ointment.
  • Cover the abscess(es) with a clean bandage.
  • Apply heat for 20 minutes at a time, several times a day, with a heating pad or hot water bottle.

To prevent spreading: 

  • Only use a towel directly on the skin once, then launder it in hot water and the dryer.
  • Put hot water bottles or heating pads against the outside of the bandage only.
  • Don’t shave the area until the sore heals. If you must shave, use a clean disposable razor each time.
  • Touch the area as little as possible and wash your hands thoroughly afterward.
  • Take care not to pop blisters or pick at sores.

If the infection appears to be spreading, doesn’t improve in the time frame your healthcare provider estimates, or systemic (body-wide) symptoms arise, see your healthcare provider again.

The length of time an infection takes to heal varies by type, how it’s treated and how soon, and other factors. A simple skin infection may go away in a couple of days. A furuncle may take about three weeks to heal without medical attention.

Antibiotics are the primary treatment for mild-to-moderate staph infections that don’t clear up on their own. They may be topical (applied to the skin) or oral (taken by mouth) but usually only if there’s no pus drainage.

Your abscess(es) may need to be incised (cut open) and drained to eliminate the pus and prevent the bacteria from spreading. This typically works in conjunction with antibiotics.

Options for Systemic Staph Infection

More serious staph infections generally require intravenous (IV) antibiotics, which a needle delivers directly into your veins.

Sometimes, an antibiotic such as methicillin, or a similar drug called Keflex (cephalexin), may be taken for conditions like cellulitis. However, these drugs are ineffective against MRSA.

You should expect to be on antibiotics for at least a couple of weeks.

Options for Antibiotic-Resistant Staph

Other classes of antibiotics can work against methicillin-resistant strains. Medical labs perform antibiotic susceptibility testing on cultures collected from your abscesses to determine which is best for you.

Depending on the severity of your infection, you may have to take oral or IV antibiotics. Common oral options include:

  • Bactrim (trimethoprim-sulfamethoxazole)
  • Cleocin (clindamycin)

Common IV choices are:

CAM Therapies

Complementary and alternative (CAM) treatments are undergoing research as potential avenues to reduce overall antibiotic usage. These strains develop directly from exposure to medications, so it pays to expose pathogens to antibiotics as seldom as possible.

One promising herbal treatment for staph infection is an ointment containing green tea. That’s due to a major component of green tea called epigallocatechin-3-gallate (EGCG). However, there is insufficient evidence to determine how effective green tea ointments are and whether they should treat staph infection.

Other plant-based treatments undergoing studies to determine their usefulness include the following:

  • Dark chocolate (Theobroma cacao), which also contains EGCG
  • Tea tree oil
  • African geranium oil (Pelargonium sidoides)
  • Lemongrass oil (Cymbopogon flexuosus)
  • Thyme oil (Thymus capitatus)
  • Lavender oil (Lavandula spp.)

These aren’t treatments you should try at home instead of medical treatment. You should make the decision of whether and how to use CAM treatments with your healthcare provider.

How to Prevent Staph From Spreading

Staph infections are highly contagious and spread through:

  • Skin-to-skin contact with an infected person
  • Touching a contaminated object, such as a doorknob, remote, or towels
  • Eating food prepared by an infected person

You can prevent the spread by taking certain steps, such as:

  • Washing hands frequently
  • Not sharing towels, bedding, or clothes with an infected person
  • Not using shared athletic equipment that hasn’t been properly cleaned and dried
  • Not preparing food for other people while you’re infected
  • Keeping broken skin (e.g., cuts, scrapes, sores) covered


Staph infections generally start in the skin. They can then spread to other areas of the skin or move deeper into the body, where they can enter the bloodstream and become systemic.

You can treat mild infections at home. If it’s spreading or not getting better, you may need antibiotics. The antibiotic type you will need depends on the infection’s location and severity and whether it’s drug-resistant. The antibiotics prescribed may be topical, oral, or intravenous.

Research about whether some herbal treatments may have the ability to reduce the need for antibiotics is in progress.

You can keep a staph infection from spreading to other people by washing your hands frequently and not sharing anything with infected people.

Frequently Asked Questions

  • When does a staph infection become serious?

    Staph infections get serious when they move into your bloodstream. That allows them to travel throughout your body, creating abscesses in your tissues. Blood infections must be treated with antibiotics, or they can become life-threatening.

  • When is a staph infection no longer contagious?

    Staph infections are contagious until you’ve been on antibiotics for between 24 and 48 hours.

  • What tests confirm staph infection?

    Culturing (growing bacteria) from an infected site can confirm a staph infection. Skin scraping, tissue or stool sample, or a throat or nasal swab can gather the necessary material.

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.
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  2. National Health Service (UK). Staph infection.

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  5. Kuipers A, Stapels DAC, Weerwind LT, et al. The Staphylococcus aureus polysaccharide capsule and Efb-dependent fibrinogen shield act in concert to protect against phagocytosisMicrobiology. 162(7):1185-1194. doi:10.1099/mic.0.000293

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  7. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Antimicrobial resistance.

  8. Umashankar N, Pemmanda B, Gopkumar P, et al. Effectiveness of topical green tea against multidrug-resistant Staphylococcus aureus in cases of primary pyoderma: an open controlled trial. Indian J Dermatol Venereol Leprol. 2018;84(2):163-168. doi:10.4103/ijdvl.IJDVL_207_16

  9. Steinmann J, Buer J, Pietschmann T, et al. Anti-infective properties of epigallocatechin-3-gallate (EGCG), a component of green tea. Br J Pharmacol. 2013;168(5):1059-1073. doi:10.1111/bph.12009

  10. American Botanical Council. Herbs offer help in treatment of MRSA staph infections.

  11. Penn Medicine. Staph infections: what you should know.

Additional Reading

By Adrienne Dellwo
Adrienne Dellwo is an experienced journalist who was diagnosed with fibromyalgia and has written extensively on the topic.