Can you breastfeed if you have MRSA?

Some breastfeeding mothers contract mastitis, a breast infection. One of the most common causes of mastitis is a MRSA infection.
Some breastfeeding mothers contract mastitis, a breast infection. One of the most common causes of mastitis is a MRSA infection.
Julia Wheeler and Veronika Laws/Getty Images

Methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus (MRSA) is a type of staph infection that's resistant to many antibiotics. It's typically contracted in facilities such as hospitals and other health care settings. Breastfeeding mothers can be predisposed to developing MRSA (pronounced "mer-suh"), and many moms are understandably concerned about spreading the infection to their infant via nursing. Before we dive into the specifics, let's review the basics of MRSA.

A strain of the common staph bacteria, MRSA occurs on the skin or inside the nose. Sometimes confused with spider bites, MRSA usually starts with red bumps like a pimple or a boil that quickly becomes inflamed, swollen and painful. It is highly contagious, so if you believe you may have MRSA, make sure that you — or anyone who touches your wound — wash your hands thoroughly after contact.

MRSA can also spread via contaminated bed linens, medical tools or bathroom fixtures. This is why you see signs touting the importance of hand washing everywhere in hospital and medical settings. Recently, MRSA has been spreading in community settings as well [source: MRSA Research Center].

MRSA can affect you in two ways: colonization and infection. Colonizing bacteria are hanging out on your skin but not actively causing symptoms or infections. If you have an infection, those bacteria are multiplying on your skin and causing symptoms [source: Intermountain Healthcare].

See a medical professional as soon as possible if you believe you may have a staph infection or even if you've been exposed to MRSA. An out-of-control staph infection can cause severe health issues, including:

  • Organ failure
  • Necrosis (tissue death)
  • Nervous system infections
  • Pneumonia
  • Sinus infections
  • Toxic shock syndrome
  • Endocarditis (heart infection)
  • Blood poisoning
  • Blood clots

If you are diagnosed with MRSA, the infection does respond to a limited number of antibiotics. Additionally, if the infection is abscessed, your doctor can drain it. With proper treatment and quick medical intervention, you can get rid of a normal MRSA infection in about 10 days [source: MRSA Research Center]. Of course, this varies from person to person.

This all seems a little scary, so let's talk about how to keep from getting MRSA in the first place:

  • Keep your hands clean and always wash them thoroughly.
  • Keep scrapes and cuts covered and clean until healed.
  • Don't touch other people's wounds or dirty bandages.
  • Avoid sharing personal items such as towels, razors, linens, nail clippers, clothing or sheets.

To avoid spreading MRSA, take the following precautions:

  • Keep your wound covered and clean until it heals.
  • Ensure anyone in close contact with you washes his or her hands thoroughly and frequently — especially after changing a bandage on your wound.
  • Do not share any of your personal items with anyone.

If you're hospitalized while you have MRSA — such as after giving birth — your medical professionals will advise you on the correct care. So what do you do if you're nursing?

MRSA and Breastfeeding

Methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus (MRSA) is a type of staph infection that’s resistant to many antibiotics.
Methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus (MRSA) is a type of staph infection that’s resistant to many antibiotics.
R Parulan Jr./Getty Images

Some breastfeeding mothers contract mastitis, a breast infection. This inflammation of the mammary glands occurs in about one-third of breastfeeding women [source: Rubolino-Gallego]. One of the most common causes of mastitis is a MRSA infection, when bacteria have entered the breast tissue, usually via cracked skin on the nipple.

Symptoms of mastitis include pain, fever and flu-like symptoms. Women with mastitis are urged to breastfeed frequently and pump afterward to ensure the breasts are completely empty of milk. Typically, regular mastitis clears up with mild antibiotics. However, MRSA-induced mastitis may require wound aspiration or abscess drainage, depending on the severity of the infection.

Mothers with MRSA should continue breastfeeding their babies [source: Intermountain Healthcare]. Breast milk, especially in the first six weeks, is the best and healthiest nourishment for infants. Remember, MRSA spreads via skin contact. If one breast is infected, the mother should simply nurse from the healthy breast and pump out the milk from the infected breast until it heals.

The only time a doctor may advise against breastfeeding is if the baby is in neo-natal intensive care. Additionally, some antibiotics given for MRSA aren't great for nursing moms and their babies. Doctors can work with nursing mothers to use antibiotics that are safe for both mom and baby.

Nursing mothers should follow their own MRSA-prevention checklist:

  • Ensure your milk is fully drained after breastfeeding to avoid clogged milk ducts.
  • Alternate your breasts at each feeding.
  • Avoid long periods between nursing.
  • Avoid rapid weaning.
  • Avoid underwire bras, as they can cause rubbing and sores through which bacteria can enter.

If you do have MRSA, take the same precautions you would take with anyone else. Ensure your wound is always clean and covered and does not make contact with your baby. If your baby shows any sign of infection, take him or her to a medical professional. Keep an eye out for any redness, blisters or swelling around the area of the umbilical cord [source: Intermountain Healthcare].

A 2013 experiment at the University of Buffalo indicated that a protein in breast milk might actually weaken MRSA cells [sources: Marks et al., Rice]. In Petri dishes and animal experiments, a protein-lipid complex in human breast milk has been shown to kill or weaken bacteria. Termed human alpha-lactalbumin made lethal to tumor cells (HAMLET), this complex may also increase the effectiveness of other antibiotics.

The implications of this study mean that people infected with MRSA may not have to take such strong antibiotics in the future. The benefit of HAMLET is two-fold: It prevents more superbugs from forming from overuse of antibiotics, and it keeps nursing infants from having to ingest antibiotics that might cause them to suffer upset stomachs.

At its best, MRSA is a nasty infection. At its worst, it can be life threatening. If your infection is under control and you take necessary precautions, it is completely safe — and recommended — to breastfeed your infant even if you have MRSA. But, as always, check with your doctor or pediatrician.

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Sources

  • Bosco, Marie L. "Methicillin-Resistant Staphylococcus aureus (MRSA) Mastitis." Fitzgerald Health Education Associates Inc. July 2010. (Sept. 12, 2014) http://fhea.com/main/content/breastfeeding/july2010.pdf
  • Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. "Methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus (MRSA) Infections." May 28, 2014. (Sept. 12, 2014) http://www.cdc.gov/mrsa/index.html
  • Intermountain Healthcare. "MRSA and New Mothers." (Sept. 12, 2014) http://intermountainhealthcare.org/ext/Dcmnt?ncid=520952842
  • Marks, Laura L. et al. "Sensitization of Staphylococcus aureus to Methicillin and Other Antibiotics in Vitro and In Vivo in the Presence of HAMLET." PLOS One. May 1, 2013. (Nov. 28, 2014) http://www.plosone.org/article/info%3Adoi%2F10.1371%2Fjournal.pone.0063158
  • MRSA Research Center. "Frequently Asked Questions about MRSA." 2014. (Sept. 12, 2014) http://mrsa-research-center.bsd.uchicago.edu/patients_families/faq.html
  • Rice, Sandy Calhoun. "Breast Milk Protein Called HAMLET Helps Kill Dangerous Hospital 'Superbugs.'" HealthlineNews. May 2, 2013. (Sept. 12, 2014) http://www.healthline.com/health-news/children-breast-milk-protein-kills-superbugs-050213
  • Rubolino-Gallego, Maria L. "Mastitis and MRSA." Advance Healthcare Network. March 1, 2010. (Sept. 12, 2014) http://nurse-practitioners-and-physician-assistants.advanceweb.com/Archives/Article-Archives/Mastitis-and-MRSA.aspx