It has the bacterial equivalent of a bullet-proof vest -- a highly contagious and potentially lethal "superbug" that's resistant to most antibiotics.
MRSA, Methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus, is a strain of bacteria resistant to common antibiotics that used to be found mainly in health care facilities and nursing homes.
Now a new community-acquired strain of MRSA is becoming more common, and medical professionals are sounding the alarm.
"It's something to be aware of, not scared of," said Dr. Michael Blank, infectious disease specialist at Firelands Regional Medical Center. Firelands is the only hospital in the area with an infectious disease doctor. Blank came to Firelands in 2005, and also does consultations for Fisher-Titus Medical Center in Norwalk.
The symptoms of a MRSA infection often begin as a small sore many people mistake for a spider bite or pimple, said nurse Susan Cramer, coordinator of infection control and patient safety at Firelands.
Skin and soft-tissue MRSA infections can be taken care of with proper treatment. MRSA infections that spread to the blood stream, however, can be fatal, especially in patients with weakened immune systems because of illness or existing health problems.
The most effective weapon to combat this superbug may be a simple bar of soap.
"It goes back to the same things your parents always told you -- wash your hands," Blank said.
The bacteria often lives on the skin of people and animals, but can survive for up to 56 days on inanimate surfaces like tables, railings and even toilet seats.
Many people may be colonized with the bacteria and never know it, Blank said.
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, skin-to-skin contact is how the bacteria is most commonly spread. Any communal setting such as dormitories, locker rooms and gyms are prime bacteria-breeding ground. Area jails have seen a lot of MRSA infections, Blank added.
The CDC recommends keeping open cuts clean and covered to avoid infection. Sharing of towels, razors or other personal items should be avoided.
Most people who go to the emergency department for MRSA infections are often treated and sent home, Blank said. The patients who do need to be admitted are kept in isolation rooms.
This year, the CDC issues stricter isolation guidelines, Cramer said. The hospital has specific cleaning guidelines once an MRSA patient is discharged to ensure the room is sanitary for the next patient.
If someone suspects an MRSA infection, Blank recommended they see their doctor. If it is an emergency, go to the hospital emergency department.