Methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus - or MRSA - has been a problem in hospital and health care settings for decades. More recently, this highly drug-resistant bacterium has become a problem among otherwise healthy student athletes. Is your child at risk? What can you do to protect against MRSA infection?

James M. Steckelberg, M.D., an infectious disease specialist at Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minnesota, answers these and other common questions about MRSA.

What is MRSA?

MRSA is a type of bacterium that can resist the effects of many common antibiotics. This ability makes MRSA infections much more difficult to treat.

MRSA first surfaced in hospitals, where it often caused serious bloodstream infections in people who were sick with other diseases and conditions. Now there are varieties of MRSA that occur in nonhospital settings. These infections typically affect the skin of otherwise healthy individuals — such as student athletes.

What does an MRSA infection look like?

An MRSA skin infection looks like a boil, pimple or spider bite that may be:

These infections most commonly occur at sites where the skin has been broken by cuts or scrapes, or on areas of the skin covered by hair, such as the:

How does MRSA spread?

MRSA is spread by:

What can schools do to prevent MRSA infections?

Athletic equipment and locker rooms should be regularly cleaned and disinfected. There's no evidence that spraying or fogging rooms or surfaces with disinfectant works any better than just focusing on frequently touched surfaces — such as wrestling mats, weight training equipment and locker room benches.

What can athletes do to prevent MRSA infections?

To help prevent the spread of MRSA infections:

If you suspect an MRSA infection, what should you do?

Don't try to treat the infection yourself. Go to your doctor. Minor MRSA skin infections usually heal after being drained. If the infection doesn't heal well or gets worse, your doctor may prescribe antibiotics that are still effective against MRSA. If the infection is severe, you may need to be hospitalized. In rare cases, MRSA infections can become life-threatening.

When can the athlete return to play?

The National Athletic Trainers' Association recommends that suspicious lesions be tested for MRSA and that the athlete not be allowed to return to play until: