Children can react differently to staph infections

March 03, 2010

Children and young athletes can easily pick up this bacterial skin infection in settings such as daycares and gyms

In recent years, doctors have seen an increase in staph infections, some of which are resistant to antibiotics and can be quite dangerous. Children and young athletes can easily pick up this bacterial skin infection in settings such as daycares and gyms.

Staph infections can cause bumps on the skin that look like pimples or boils, as well as redness, swelling, pain and drainage. The germ that causes staph infections, the Staphylococcus bacterium, can enter the skin from cuts or scratches. It spreads quickly by sharing things like towels, gym equipment and toys. Most staph infections can be treated easily, but some lead to more serious illness.

Different children have different reactions

Also, while some children respond well to treatment, others have more extreme reactions. Infectious disease specialists at Children’s Medical Center and UT Southwestern Medical Center recently studied why this is so.

The researchers mapped the gene profiles of children with severe staph infections, providing crucial insight into how the human immune system is programmed to respond to this pathogen and opening new doors for improved treatments.

Until recently, doctors weren’t sure why some people developed more severe staph infections than others. By using gene expression profiling, a process that summarizes how individual genes are activated or suppressed in response to infection, UT Southwestern researchers pinpointed how a person’s immune system responds to a staph infection at the genetic level.

“This study was able to use existing technology to understand what’s going on in humans in a real clinical setting — not models, cells or mice,” said Dr. Monica Ardura, an infectious disease expert at Children’s, instructor of Pediatrics at UT Southwestern and lead author of the study. “We have provided the first description of a pattern of response within an individual’s immune system that is very consistent, very reproducible and very intense.”

Two-part immune system

The immune system has two parts: an innate system for immediate defense against infection, and an adaptive system with memory cells to fight off subsequent infections. The study showed that invasive staph infections overwhelmed the initial immune response while suppressing the adaptive immune system that would prevent infection later.

“Now that researchers know how the immune system responds, the question is whether this methodology can be used to predict patient outcomes or differentiate the sickest patients from the less sick ones and ultimately, how this knowledge can be used to develop better therapies,” Dr. Ardura said.

The work was supported by the National Institutes of Health, the Center for Lupus Research and the Baylor Health Care System Foundation. The study is available online in PLoS One, the Public Library of Science’s online journal.

Tips to Prevent Staph Infections

In General:

  • Learn first aid for wounds and how to recognize potential skin infections.
  • Use any antibiotic ointments or other treatments that your child’s doctor suggests.
  • Keep your child’s fingernails short.
  • Keep cuts and scrapes clean and covered with a bandage.
  • Shower with soap and hot water.
  • Don’t touch other peoples’ cuts or bandages.
  • Clean toys regularly.
  • Practice good hygiene. Wash your hands frequently or use an alcohol-based hand sanitizer.

For Athletes:

  • Don’t share towels, clothing or personal items such as razors.
  • Clean towels after all practices and competitions.
  • Clean equipment regularly.
  • Don’t participate in practice or competitions until skin infections heal or can be covered adequately.
  • Tell your coach or athletic trainer if you think you have a skin infection. Coaches and athletic trainers should regularly check athletes for skin lesions.

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