Children who get MRSA—a dangerous type of staph infection that can lead to sepsis and is sometimes fatal—must be diagnosed and treated quickly to have the best chance of a successful recovery, a new study says.

The report, out today in the journal Pediatrics, also suggests that MRSA, which is resistant to certain antibiotics, may behave differently in children than in adults.

Among the 232 children in the study, MRSA infections did not last as long as they typically do in adults. But for each additional day the kids had MRSA in their blood, their risk of experiencing complications—such as the infection spreading to new parts of the body—increased by 50%.

In adults, it's typical for a MRSA blood infection to last eight or nine days, but the kids were infected a median of just two days. Only 24 of them had MRSA detected in their blood for more than seven days. Three of those infections were fatal.

Despite these critical differences, most of the research doctors rely on when deciding how to treat children infected with MRSA (methicillin-resistant staphylococcus aureus) is based on studies done in adults rather than in children, says study author Rana Hamdy, M.D., M.P.H., a pediatric infectious disease specialist at Children’s National Health System in Washington, D.C.

The new study aimed to fill that knowledge gap by looking at data from three children’s hospitals in the U.S.

“To us, [the results] really emphasized the importance of early and aggressive therapy,” says Hamdy, not only with strong antibiotics but also by addressing the source of an infection quickly—draining abscesses or removing a contaminated catheter, for example.

MRSA infections are often picked up in hospitals, which can be breeding grounds for antibiotic-resistant bacteria. For most children in the study, however, their symptoms first emerged when they were in the community—at home or at school, for example.

While it's possible to treat children's MRSA infections successfully, the new research underscores that it's better to prevent these infections in the first place. Here's what you need to know to help your kids stay safe. 

MRSA: A Persistent Problem

 Staphylococcus aureus, widely known as "staph," is a common bacterium, with about one in three people carrying it in their nose, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Two in 100 people carry MRSA, a type of staph that is resistant to some antibiotics.

When these common bacteria enter the bloodstream—something that can happen when you have a cut or during surgery—it can turn into a serious infection.

The good news is  that there's evidence that MRSA infections seem to be on the decline, according to the CDC. But they are still pervasive. In 2014, the CDC estimated that there were about 72,400 invasive MRSA infections in the U.S.

Rates of serious MRSA infections have tended to be lower in kids than in adults, says Francisca Abanyie, M.D., a medical epidemiologist in CDC’s Division of Healthcare Quality Promotion. But infants are at a higher risk: They have disproportionately high rates of infection compared to other children and are more likely to have gotten infected in hospitals, she says.

Kids can contract MRSA in hospitals, too, as well as in community settings such as schools and playgrounds, says Carole Moss, an activist involved with Consumer Reports’ Safe Patient Project whose son, Nile, died from a MRSA infection he picked up in the hospital. 

“There is no excuse for people to be contracting MRSA in hospitals,” Moss says—but some facilities are still lagging behind in practices that can help avoid the preventable infections. 

Advice for Parents

  • Do your research. If your child needs to be admitted to a hospital, especially for surgery, check out the hospital’s MRSA infection rate using Consumer Reports’ hospital ratings to help you choose an institution with good infection-control procedures in place.
  • Get kids tested before surgery. If your child is going into the hospital for surgery, get them tested for MRSA beforehand to make sure they’re not carrying it in with them, as it could spread to other places in their body, Moss says. Have them tested again before leaving the hospital. 
  • Be vigilant about hand washing. Make sure health care providers wash their hands with soap and water or use hand sanitizer before and after touching your child, even if you have to remind them yourself, says Moss. (See more CR tips for staying safe in the hospital here.) Outside the hospital, encourage kids to wash their hands frequently, make sure gym equipment is cleaned properly, wash workout clothes, and have your kids wear flip-flops when showering in locker rooms.
  • Be alert to signs of infection. Identify a potential MRSA infection early, so you can talk to your pediatrician before things potentially get worse: Staph infections generally start out looking like an insect bite, and can become swollen and painful quickly. They are also the most common cause of skin infections with abscesses, Hamdy says, and any systemic symptoms—a fever, not feeling well or eating well—indicates the infection could be more widespread.