The Staphylococcal Infections of the Skin


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a) An agar plate with 2 regions of growth. One region has a yellow background, the other has a pink background. B) A micrograph of clusters of round cells. Each cell is just under 1 µm in diameter.
(a) A mannitol salt agar plate is used to distinguish different species of staphylococci. In this plate, S. aureus is on the left and S. epidermidis is in the right. Because S. aureus is capable of fermenting mannitol, it produces acids that cause the color to change to yellow. (b) This scanning electron micrograph shows the characteristic grapelike clusters of S. aureus. (credit a: modification of work by “ScienceProfOnline”/YouTube; credit b: modification of work by Centers for Disease Control and Prevention)

OpenStax Microbiology

Staphylococcus species are commonly found on the skin, with S. epidermidis and S. hominis being prevalent in the normal microbiota. S. aureus is also commonly found in the nasal passages and on healthy skin, but pathogenic strains are often the cause of a broad range of infections of the skin and other body systems.

S. aureus is quite contagious. It is spread easily through skin-to-skin contact, and because many people are chronic nasal carriers (asymptomatic individuals who carry S. aureus in their nares), the bacteria can easily be transferred from the nose to the hands and then to fomites or other individuals. Because it is so contagious, S. aureus is prevalent in most community settings. This prevalence is particularly problematic in hospitals, where antibiotic-resistant strains of the bacteria may be present, and where immunocompromised patients may be more susceptible to infection. Resistant strains include methicillin-resistant S. aureus (MRSA), which can be acquired through health-care settings (hospital-acquired MRSA, or HA-MRSA) or in the community (community-acquired MRSA, or CA-MRSA). Hospital patients often arrive at health-care facilities already colonized with antibiotic-resistant strains of S. aureus that can be transferred to health-care providers and other patients. Some hospitals have attempted to detect these individuals in order to institute prophylactic measures, but they have had mixed success.

When a staphylococcal infection develops, choice of medication is important. As discussed above, many staphylococci (such as MRSA) are resistant to some or many antibiotics. Thus, antibiotic sensitivity is measured to identify the most suitable antibiotic. However, even before receiving the results of sensitivity analysis, suspected S. aureus infections are often initially treated with drugs known to be effective against MRSA, such as trimethoprim-sulfamethoxazole (TMP/SMZ), clindamycin, a tetracycline (doxycycline or minocycline), or linezolid.

The pathogenicity of staphylococcal infections is often enhanced by characteristic chemicals secreted by some strains. Staphylococcal virulence factors include hemolysins called staphylolysins, which are cytotoxic for many types of cells, including skin cells and white blood cells. Virulent strains of S. aureus are also coagulase-positive, meaning they produce coagulase, a plasma-clotting protein that is involved in abscess formation. They may also produce leukocidins, which kill white blood cells and can contribute to the production of pus and Protein A, which inhibits phagocytosis by binding to the constant region of antibodies. Some virulent strains of S. aureus also produce other toxins, such as toxic shock syndrome toxin-1.

To confirm the causative agent of a suspected staphylococcal skin infection, samples from the wound are cultured. Under the microscope, gram-positive Staphylococcus species have cellular arrangements that form grapelike clusters; when grown on blood agar, colonies have a unique pigmentation ranging from opaque white to cream. A catalase test is used to distinguish Staphylococcus from Streptococcus, which is also a genus of gram-positive cocci and a common cause of skin infections. Staphylococcus species are catalase-positive while Streptococcus species are catalase-negative.

Other tests are performed on samples from the wound in order to distinguish coagulase-positive species of Staphylococcus (CoPS) such as S. aureus from common coagulase-negative species (CoNS) such as S. epidermidis. Although CoNS are less likely than CoPS to cause human disease, they can cause infections when they enter the body, as can sometimes occur via catheters, indwelling medical devices, and wounds. Passive agglutination testing can be used to distinguish CoPS from CoNS. If the sample is coagulase-positive, the sample is generally presumed to contain S. aureus. Additional genetic testing would be necessary to identify the particular strain of S. aureus.

Another way to distinguish CoPS from CoNS is by culturing the sample on mannitol salt agar (MSA). Staphylococcus species readily grow on this medium because they are tolerant of the high concentration of sodium chloride (7.5% NaCl). However, CoPS such as S. aureus ferment mannitol (which will be evident on a MSA plate), whereas CoNS such as S. epidermidis do not ferment mannitol but can be distinguished by the fermentation of other sugars such as lactose, malonate, and raffinose.


Parker, N., Schneegurt, M., Thi Tu, A.-H., Forster, B. M., & Lister, P. (n.d.). Microbiology. Houston, Texas: OpenStax. Access for free at: