Wednesday, October 19, 2016


Our skin is like the earth's crust, from the desert of our backs to the jungles of our darkest crevasses, we are home to many life forms. Diptheroids hate the air and live protected in our hair follicles, feeding off our oils and producing body odor and acne. Oil loving yeast are beautifully diverse, some round, bunched together like grapes on a vine, others short Twinkie-like rods, and still others running long and thin, curving and crisscrossing like roads on a map. We even have relatives of spiders living in the pores of our faces, eating away at our skin cells and coming out to mate as we sleep. But the cover girl of this world living on your skin is Staphylococcus.

Staphylococcus epidermis is the homely sister no one pays much attention to.  It lives on the inhospitable surface of the skin and can tolerate table salt. You've probably never heard of it. Staphylococcus aureus, named for its beautiful gold color, is the cover girl, with articles in countless magazines, stories on the news, and rumors of her exploits. Especially a tough little strain called by the acronym, MRSA.

Staphylococcus aureus lives in our noses and respiratory tracts. But sometimes it can enter our skin through a hair follicle and from there it can infect. Most follicle infections look like a red bump or a small pimple and disappear within a few days. Occasionally the hair must be pulled and the pus allowed to drain away before the infection ceases. But sometimes the infection will spread deeper, forming an abscess, which people commonly think is a spider bite.

Antibiotics treat general infections well, but an abscess, even if it isn't antibiotic resistant, is thick and protected. It is a bacterial castle and difficult to storm. If the body does not wall off the infection, it spread. The tissue, already inflamed, becomes hard as the invaders go deep. If they go deep enough, they join the bloodstream.

The Golden staph is a skilled army, stocked with the latest in technological weapons to destroy the body's defenses, kill our white blood cells, eat its way through the surrounding tissue, and adjust its vulnerabilities to the antibiotics we send to stop it. But usually it is simply there, living with all the other tiny things on your skin, not bothering you a bit, the cover girl at home with no make up on, going quietly through life, the neighbor you never notice.