Putting in time at the gym is supposed to make you healthier, but if you’re not careful, it could be the cause of an unexpected surprise—sickness. The gym is one of the best places for pathogens (germs) to hide. It provides germs exactly what they need to thrive and multiply: dampness, darkness, and warmth. While other body systems and tissues may be affected, skin is the primary site of exogenous infection.
Although the exposure of athletes to various routes of physical insult has been recognized since humans ran from predators, only in modern times has attention been paid to the specifics. That covers everything from respiratory irregularities to athlete’s foot. Most common, however, are attacks on the skin, and these account for more than half the outbreaks of infectious diseases that occur among participants in competitive sports. It’s been noted that, “viral, bacterial and fungal infections are common in athletes due to heat, friction and contact with others,” in a study reported in Canada. (Conklin. 1990) Lesions from herpes, tumors from molluscum, and painful plantar warts may be transmitted from surface-to-person and from person-to-person at the gym. On the upsides, there is hope because “antibiotics are effective against mild infections.”
Do you pay attention to your skin after a day at the gym? Probably not. You might wash it, but do you examine it? In the worst possible scenario MRSA, methicillin-resistant staphylococcus aureus, may appear. This germ is usually associated with hospitals and nursing homes, but of late has been associated with schools, playgrounds, and your gym, but thankfully not as an epidemic. MRSA can start as a tiny pimple and grow to the size of a softball in a short time, requiring hospitalization, surgical cleaning of the wound, stitching, and a course of antibiotics. MRSA infections commonly start at sites of visible skin trauma, such as cuts, scrapes, and abrasions, but also show up at places where there is hair, such as the back of the neck, armpit, and groin. There have been cases of MRSA beginning on feet. That makes sense because you tend to go barefoot in the locker room…when flip-flops are more in order. Direct and indirect contact with the lesions and seepages of others make the skin vulnerable to a host of problems. While MRSA may be the worst, it may also be the least likely of our worries. (Ryan. 2011) More common are athlete’s foot, jock itch, impetigo, herpes simplex, and ringworm, among a few others.
There are preventive steps you can take. Covering any breaks in the skin is of paramount importance. It doesn’t take much for an opportunistic bacterium to worm its way in. Do not shave prior to visiting your gym. That goes for gals as well as guys. Razor nicks open the door for infections. Do not go barefoot. The heat in the shower room, the darkness of the area, and the dampness provide the ultimate environment for the propagation of fungi and other pathogens. Wear flip-flops or water shoes. Besides, they’ll keep you from slipping on wet tiles.
It’s a nice courtesy for your gym to provide disinfectant sprays that you can use before attacking a machine or stretching on a mat. If it doesn’t, bring your own, along with paper towels. What’s wrong with a rag? It’ll transfer germs from one place to another. Or bring disposable wipes. More men than women shower at the gym. Make sure your towels are clean, and try not to use the one from your feet on the rest of your body if you’ve been barefoot or if it fell onto the locker room floor. Don’t share towels, either. Nor soap, unless it’s a liquid in a pump bottle.
Be religious about doing your laundry. Don’t let wet stuff sit in your gym bag to ferment. No matter how clean you think you are, stuff will grow there. If you have kids, be especially vigilant. Molluscum contagiosum is commonly seen in youngsters, usually being spread from skin to skin, but also by sharing a towel. Meticulous hygiene is imperative. Lots of men—more than women—walk around the locker room in the buff. Wearing a towel places a barrier between you and the bench or any other shared surface. The last place you want an itchy infection is where you sit.
Sports Med. 1990 Feb;9(2):100-19. Common cutaneous disorders in athletes. Conklin RJ. Department of Dermatology, University of British Columbia, Vancouver, Canada.
Am J Infect Control. 2011 Mar;39(2):148-50. Are gymnasium equipment surfaces a source of staphylococcal infections in the community? Ryan KA, Ifantides C, Bucciarelli C, Saliba H, Tuli S, Black E, Thompson LA.
AJIC: American Journal of Infection Control. Vol 37, Iss 6 , Pp 447-453, Aug 2009 A critical evaluation of methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus and other bacteria of medical interest on commonly touched household surfaces in relation to household demographics Elizabeth Scott, PhD; Susan Duty, RN, ScD; Karen McCue, BS
J Am Acad Dermatol. 1980 Oct;3(4):415-24. Dermatologic aspects of sports medicine. Levine N.
Adv Dermatol. 1989;4:29-48; discussion 49. Sports-related skin injuries. Basler RS.
*These statements have not been evaluated by the FDA. These products are not intended to treat, diagnose, cure, or prevent any disease.