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Direct Contact, Colonization, and Their Roles in Staph Infection Transmission

It's simple to understand how staph infections are spread through direct contact with someone who has an active infection. If a person has an active sore contaminated with staph and you touch it, you could become infected if you touch an opening on your skin.
The idea of colonization is often less clear. "Colonization," in the case of bacteria, means that a person is carrying a specific type of bacteria but does not have any signs or symptoms of the illness that this particular bacteria can cause.
It is estimated that 25 to 30 percent of the population is colonized with Staphylococcus bacteria, either on the skin or within their nose (the two most common areas). Up to 2 percent are colonized with MRSA.
A person can become colonized with Staphylococcus bacteria in a few different ways, such as:
  • Touching the skin of another individual who is colonized with staph bacteria, or who has an active staph infection
  • Breathing the tiny droplets that are expelled during breathing, coughing, or sneezing
  • Touching a contaminated surface.
Once colonized with Staphylococcus, a person can remain a carrier of the bacteria from a few days or weeks up to several years. During this period, people colonized with staph bacteria are not only at an increased risk for infecting others, but also themselves.
The process of transmission that occurs with colonized individuals is the same as when direct contact is made with an active infection. The difference is that in the case of colonization, it is not apparent to either the person colonized or the person becoming infected that anything is wrong.
Written by/reviewed by:
Last reviewed by: Arthur Schoenstadt, MD
Last updated/reviewed:
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