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What is a staph infection? Ozzy Osbourne's health scare explained

"I could have been dead,” the singer says after strange symptoms led him to seek help in an emergency room.
Ozzy Osbourne said his right thumb suddenly swelled to ten times its normal size. The diagnosis: a staph infection.
Ozzy Osbourne said his right thumb suddenly swelled to ten times its normal size. The diagnosis: a staph infection.ozzyosbourne/Instagram
/ Source: TODAY

Ozzy Osbourne is recovering from a potentially deadly infection he believes he may have gotten just from shaking a person’s hand.

The singer’s symptoms were so strange they left him “freaked out”: He was feeling fine, had no fever, but his right thumb suddenly swelled to “the size of a [expletive] lightbulb,” he told Rolling Stone.

It happened after a concert in Salt Lake City, Utah, this month, prompting Osbourne to go to the emergency room.

“I didn’t feel sick, so I was cracking jokes,” he told the magazine. “The doctor said, ‘I don’t know if you realize, Mr. Osbourne, this is a very serious problem you have’… They’re all extremely, deadly serious about it.”

The diagnosis: three individual staph infections in his thumb, with one spreading to his middle finger.

What is a staph infection?

Staph — shorthand for staphylococcus aureus — bacteria are some of the most common germs found on people’s skin and in their noses, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

The bacteria often don’t cause any problems, but if a person has a small cut or some type of trauma, the germs can get inside the body, said Dr. Alex Viehman, an infectious disease physician at The University of Pittsburgh Medical Center.

“The majority of staph infections are mild — 90 percent, perhaps even more,” Viehman told TODAY. “However, it’s a very serious bacteria that, if it gets more deep or more invasive, can cause very significant illness.”

Even tiny cuts smaller than the eye can see — created by everyday activities such as opening things, doing yard work, or in Osbourne’s case, perhaps playing guitar — can allow the germs to get in.

Can you get it from shaking hands?

Osbourne, 69, said that when he asked how he could have gotten the infection, the doctor replied: “Can you remember talking to someone and shaking hands?” When the singer explained he probably shakes the hands of 200 fans a day, the doctor said, “That explains it,” Osbourne recalled in the Rolling Stone account.

Viehman, who did not treat Osbourne but commented in general, was more skeptical. Shaking someone’s hand is a possible way to get a staph infection, but it would be very hard to prove that was the reason, he noted.

“It’s thought that most infections are probably due to people’s own colonization,” Viehman said. In other words, you’re likely infected by the bacteria you carry on your own skin.

What are the symptoms?

Most staph infections start out with a boil — which looks like a big pus-filled pimple — on a person’s buttocks, under their arm pit or in another sweaty area of the body, Viehman said. Often times, the boils drain on their own and resolve that way. But sometimes, people need to have them lanced by a doctor and take antibiotics.

When there’s a more systemic infection, a person will have a fever. That’s when things get serious.

“Staph infections, if they go to the blood, can be life threatening,” Viehman said. “People can get joint infections, bone infections, heart infections, blood infections.”

An infection in the hand, like in Osbourne’s case, is of particular concern to doctors because there’s not much space for soft tissue in the hands — the distance from the skin to the tendons and the bones is a lot less than in other parts of the body: “So if he gets a thumb infection with staph, it can go quickly to become a more severe infection,” Viehman noted.

How do you prevent it?

Wash your hands frequently.

If you have any cuts, cover them up with a Band-Aid.

If you have a pimple or a boil, and it's getting bigger and you're feeling sick, see a doctor.

What is the treatment?

In most cases, the infection resolves on its own or requires the patient take an antibiotic.

Some patients need to have the pressure released through surgical means. If the infection progresses to the bloodstream, a patient will need a longer course of antibiotics, Viehman said.

Osbourne had surgery — "It was agony," he recalled — took medicine and spent a few days in the hospital. His thumb is now fully recovered, the singer said in a video he posted on Instagram last week. After postponing a few tour dates, he’s philosophical about his health scare.

“It could have been a lot worse. I could have been dead,” he told Rolling Stone.

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