Going to the gym or participating in any sport that involves shared equipment and bathing facilities has always carried the risk of contracting respiratory or skin infections like athlete’s foot, impetigo, herpes simplex and ringworm—just to name a few. But with more deadly skin infections like MRSA on the scene, knowing how to play it safe and prevent infections may save your life.
Hot Bed for Bugs
Three primary factors make athletic environments the perfect breeding ground to spread infections:
- Multiple people sharing equipment and locker rooms
- Hot, steamy, sweaty environments that foster growth of bacteria and fungi
- Physical activities (individual or group sports) often involve abrasions or injuries that result in broken skin vulnerable to infection.
Taken together, experts say that you should assume exposure to a number of bad bugs and take steps to prevent infection.
What to Do
Wash Hands – frequent hand washing is the single most important way to prevent many infections. A recent report noted an alarming increase in the prevalence of MRSA in the noses of both healthy children and adults. So sneezing into your hands or blowing your nose without washing your hands may spread these bacteria to others.
Bring Personal Supplies – bring your own equipment when possible. This includes: yoga mats, boxing gloves, wraps, towels and razors.
Cover Wounds – if you have an open wound, even a scratch, keep it covered. If you have an infection, stay out of pools or hot tubs and keep the area covered to prevent giving it to others.
Wipe Equipment – wipe down equipment before and after use—but not with the same towel you use to mop sweat off your own brow. Your gym should have antibacterial spray and towels for this purpose.
Take Showers – shower before and after using pools, hot tubs or steam rooms to prevent “hot tub rash” caused by the bacterium Pseudomonas aeruginosa.
Use Shower Shoes – wearing shower shoes is a good way to prevent picking up a fungal infection from locker room floors and showers.
Stay Clean, Dry – to prevent fungal infections post workout, get out of damp clothes and socks and take a shower. Dry arm-pits, groin area and feet (especially between toes) thoroughly. You can go a step further and use a blow dryer on low or apply talcum powder as well. Also, don’t wear gym shoes if they are still damp from a previous workout. This may require having two or three pairs of gym shoes.
Separate Clothes – Keep clean clothes separate from dirty ones. It’s best to have two gym bags, one for clean clothes and the other for dirty clothes, shoes and used towels. Also wash gym bags regularly.
Stay Home – If you have a cold or the flu stay home until you’ve been free of a fever for at least a day so you don’t spread your germs to others. For other communicable conditions, follow doctor’s orders to prevent spread of infection.
In addition to doing your part to prevent infections, facilities should also maintain certain standards for a clean and safe facility including:
- Periodic cleaning of all equipment and locker rooms throughout the day.
- Providing antibacterial wipes, sprays or towels to clean equipment.
- Liquid soap dispensers for hand washing and showers.
Despite the risk of picking up an infection at the gym or playing contact sports, experts say the benefits of physical exercise far outweigh any risks—so don’t even think about cancelling your gym membership!