Staphylococcal infections

  • Staphylococcus (referred to as staph) is a group of bacteria commonly carried on the skin or in the nose of healthy people. Although there are 40 types, the most common one is staphylococcus aureus.

    Staph generally causes no problems or illness. However, if the bacteria enters the body through a wound, cut or graze, or open skin (e.g. broken skin caused by eczema), it may cause an infection.  Staph is one of the most common causes of skin infections and can cause serious wound infections.

    Since the 1950s, some strains of staph have built up resistance to antibiotics. Staph aureus that is resistant to the antibiotic methicillin is called methicillin resistant staphylococcus aureus (MRSA). People often refer to MRSA as 'golden staph' because the infected pus is yellow/gold in colour.

    Most staph infections are treated with antibiotics, and there are still some antibiotics that can successfully treat MRSA infections.

    Signs and symptoms of staph infection

    If your child has a staph infection of an existing or new wound, they may have:

    • swelling around the wound
    • a wound that fails to completely heal
    • a fever
    • redness and heat around the wound
    • yellow-coloured crusting (scabs) and weeping.

    If your child has eczema, an affected area of skin may become infected with staph.

    Staph can cause other kinds of illnesses including bone infections, impetigo (school sores), pneumonia and blood stream infections.

    Scalded skin syndrome is caused by staph and is usually seen in children under the age of two years. It can start with a lesion (sore) around the nose or mouth, which then quickly develops into a bright red area. When touched, the affected skin may peel off in sheets; antibiotic therapy is needed.

    What causes staph infections?

    Staph is found on the skin and in the nose of 30–50 per cent of people without causing disease. It will only cause an infection when it can enter through a wound or open skin. A staph infection normally only develops in the elderly, the very sick or those who have an open wound. Healthy people rarely become infected.

    Staph can only be spread by skin-to-skin contact. You cannot catch it just by being in the same room as an infected person. Good hand hygiene can prevent the spread of staph.

    Treatment for staph infections

    If you think your child has a staph infection, take them to a GP, who will most likely prescribe antibiotics to treat the infection if it appears to be caused by the staph bacteria. If your child is unwell, they may be admitted to hospital for the antibiotics to be administered through a drip into a vein (intravenous or IV therapy).

    Recovery time will depend on the general overall health of your child. If your child has a poor immune system, then a staph infection can be quite serious. Children with lowered immunity or a serious infection would need to be admitted to hospital for intravenous antibiotics.

    If your child has recurrent staph infections, your doctor may prescribe an antibiotic cream (e.g. Bactroban). This should be applied under your child's fingernails and around their nostrils to help get rid of the staph bacteria, and reduce the chance of your child being reinfected. 

    Care at home

    Contact with your child's wound should be avoided, and the wound may need to be covered with a dressing.

    Good hygiene is essential when caring for a child with a staph infection. Hands need to be washed with soap and water before and after contact with the child and their surroundings. See our fact sheet Stopping the spread of germs for more information.

    A bleach bath may be recommend by a health professional. This will reduce the amount of bacteria on the skin and will help to treat the current infection. See our fact sheet Skin infections – bleach baths

    If your child is prescribed antibiotics, the full course of antibiotics should be completed. If the infection does not get better, go back to your GP.

    Key points to remember

    • Staphylococcus aureus is common and will only cause an infection when it can enter through a wound or open skin.
    • Staph can cause several different types of infections: skin/wound, gastrointestinal, pneumonia and blood stream infections.
    • Thoroughly washing your hands and avoiding skin-to-skin contact can prevent staph infections.
    • Antibiotics are usually needed to treat staph infections. The full course of antibiotics should be completed.
    • Staph infections resistant to some antibiotics are called MRSA or golden staph infections, however they can still be treated by some antibiotics.

    For more information

    Common questions our doctors are asked

    What is used to treat golden staph infections? Is the treatment safe for children?

    Stronger antibiotics are used for more serious staph infections. These are usually given intravenously. The doses used are carefully calculated for your child, based on their age and weight, and are safe for use in children.   

    Why do I need to complete the antibiotics if my child's infection is all better?

    Not completing a full course of antibiotics may lead to the staph infection becoming resistant to the antibiotic that was prescribed to treat your child. It is important to ensure that all of the bacteria has been eradicated, which is why the course continues for many days after your child looks and feels better.

    Developed by The Royal Children's Hospital Infection Control department. We acknowledge the input of RCH consumers and carers.

    Reviewed May 2018.

    This information is awaiting routine review. Please always seek the most recent advice from a registered and practising clinician.

    Kids Health Info is supported by The Royal Children’s Hospital Foundation. To donate, visit


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