MRSA Methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus

This was the only picture we could find that wasn't gag-inducing. MRSA is not pretty. Photo: Wikimedia Commons.


The Inertia

In 2008, professional surfer Ryan Carlson was rushed to the hospital after a small sea urchin cut he received while surfing in Puerto Rico became a large pus-filled abscess that was quickly taking over his left foot. After being admitted to the hospital, doctors diagnosed Ryan as having MRSA, the deadliest form of staph infection, and told him that in order to stop the spread they might be forced to amputate his leg, effectively ending his career as a professional surfer.

Ryan is one of many in the surfing community diagnosed with MRSA, because as surfers we often face exposure in the ocean and on the beach. I have had multiple friends who have battled with MRSA infections for months at a time, one even needing emergency transport from Bali. In fact, it is becoming so widespread among those who surf that Transworld Surf has named it one of the “top ten surfer sicknesses” of 2010.

Cases like these have provoked a string of medical studies yielding startling results: Nine out of the ten beaches in Washington State that were tested came up positive for staph including MRSA. Other beaches testing positive were found in Florida, Hawaii, and California.

Despite the local press the issue has received, it is unsettling how little people visiting the beaches know about the hazards of acquiring MRSA and the proper methods for preventing and treating infection. According to a study done by the U.S. department of Commerce, about 1 in 4 Americans visit the beach annually, generating 61 billion dollars in revenue for California alone. Yet looking through California’s premier tourism website visitcalifornia.com, there is not even a mention of MRSA, let alone any of the other risks undertaken when making a trip to the beach (riptides, sun exposure, dirty water).

Scientifically speaking, MRSA, short for Methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus, is a bacteria belonging to the Cocci class. Like many other bacteria of this class, MRSA tends to multiply quickly, form colonies, and transfer genes horizontally between individuals, which makes it especially difficult to treat after initial infection, and gives rise to the amazing and frightening ability of bacterial colonies to quickly adapt to changing conditions, including our antibiotics. MRSA is most easily acquired through open wounds, and studies show that being buried in the sand seems to raise the risk of infection.

Think about how many times you have gone surfing with a cut on your foot and forgot to wash off the sand afterwards.  Traditionally this attitude of neglect came from the fact that if you got an infection, a quick trip to the doctor’s office to pick up some antibiotics was all that was necessary. And for the last couple generations, there really wasn’t any need to fear infection because we had a constant influx of new antibiotics coming from the pharmaceutical industry.

In the future, it is going to be up to every individual to take more precautions in preventing infection because we are likely coming to the close of the era of antibiotics and their wide availability. There has been a huge increase in multi-drug resistant strains of bacteria and as surfers we are exposed at higher levels than most others through contact with the water. The medical community has not discovered a single new class of antibiotics since the 1980’s, despite ample funding and exploration and the prospects for the future are likely going to be unable to meet the expected need.

MRSA and the future of antibiotics boils down to the question of what kind of world we want to leave to our children.  It is imperative for the surfing community to take action so that our kids are educated about these issues, not with media scares, but in the water, as good habits in healthy living need to start at a young age and be taught alongside lessons like putting on a wetsuit or catching your first wave. This is a call to arms guys. Help me out here.


  • the roller

    The beach is nothing but a bird  bathroom.. The ocean’s nothing but a fish toilet.

  • ctwalrus

    I got a cut in my knee down in panama in 05, cleaned it well and kept it covered for the the rest of the trip.   came home to NJ and went surfing near a storm drain…three days later my knee looked like a red soccer ball.  yep, MERSA—three weeks of drugs later I have a damaged knee joint that will in the next few years need to be replaced due to the damage to the joint structure.  it is not a joke, keep wounds clean and watch where and when you surf..

  • Nick Carroll

    So ahh, Nick K, how about giving everyone a few tips on how to avoid staph aur. infection in surfing injuries?

    • ctwalrus

      scrub, scrub, soap, soap, rinse, rinse—repeat—repeat!       you can’t clean a wound enough.  lots of clean water and repeat.       most of the over the counter antibiotics don’t cut it any more.  if you are travelling, get an Rx from your family doctor for a week’s supply of one of the serious ABT’s like cipro, and follow the directions to the letter.    I’m a nurse and still got it because i thought my local break was ok—-nope!   most MERSA infection are spread in hospitals, but, the number of outside infections is rising.  avoid the ‘dirty’ breaks near storm drains or river mouths and use a strong anti bacterial soap if you have any questions about where you just surfed, scrub and scrub often……..

    • Public Health

      http://tahilla.typepad.com/mrsawatch/
      I think this link will provide a good amount of information about prevention.

    • Stu

       studies are showing that those with lower vitamin D levels are far more likely to feel the wrath of MRSA.   

  • Stu

    phage therapy will save us all!

  • Corndog

    Wound infections that can maim or kill have existed for longer than mankind and longer than MRSA has been around.  MRSA is a nasty bug, but there are still plenty of antibiotics that should treat it (but not cipro).  I’m an ER doc, I take care of these things everyday…the vast majority get better with appropriate treatment.  Just clean your wounds out (copious jet irrigation is my line)…if it turns red, starts to hurt really bad or pus comes flying out…go see a doctor.  Don’t be scared of the sand…

  • russ

    Young Living “Thieves” blend of antibacterial essential oils has been good at riding my case of mrsa I picked it up in a hospital.  Take internally, use externally. The small list of antibiotics for MRSA are loosing their potency to wipe it out.  Alkalizing your body and keeping probiotics plentiful are the other big ones. Takes sacrafices to get the body super cleaned out, but thats what it takes to get rid of it.