Warning: Your fellow gym-goers could be spreading disease

Consumer Reports News: August 05, 2010 03:56 PM

If you work out in a gym with other people, you might be at greater risk for skin infections than you bargained for. A recent report from the National Athletic Trainers’ Association (NATA),* notes that in athletic settings it is important to "assume that individuals are carriers of pathogenic microorganisms." The document details how you might catch bacterial, fungal, and viral diseases, including, athlete’s foot, jock itch, staph infections including methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus (MRSA, an antibacterial-resistant staph infection), impetigo, herpes simplex, and ringworm during athletic activities, and provides recommendations to help trainers and athletes avoid these common ailments.

The New York Times picked up on the study earlier this week, noting that the recommendations could apply to "to anyone who works out in a communal setting, be it a school, commercial gym or Y." They also provided personal stories, like that of Kyle Frey, a 21-year-old wrestler at Drexel University in Philadelphia. What he thought was a pimple he discovered last winter was actually a community-acquired MRSA infection. It grew overnight to the size of his bicep, according to the Times, and he spent five days in the hospital being treated for the antibiotic-resistant staph infection.

Skin infections are the most common disease outbreak in competitive sports, according to the NATA report. That may be due in part to skin-to-skin contact between athletes, or because conditions are ripe for transmission. Athletes’ skin is often sweaty, and is frequently compromised from abrasive contact—cuts and scrapes, or from shaving or taping—which can make transmission easier.

Even if you don’t play contact sports, those germs can be spread indirectly from surfaces and through the air in your workout complex. Wiping off your equipment with disinfectant isn’t just polite—it can prevent disease. You should also make sure your facility properly cleans the equipment frequently. And personal hygiene is of the utmost importance when you’re working out."You should be showering at the gym and putting on clean clothes that are kept separate from the dirty ones," Steven M. Zinder, a trainer at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and chief author of the guidelines, told the Times. He also said that both sexes get it wrong: Men often fail to wash their whole bodies and women often wait to shower elsewhere.

Here are some tips, based on the NATA guidelines, to avoid common athletic skin infections:

  • Wash your hands. It’s the most important practice in preventing infection.
  • Shower your entire body after a workout. Shower sandals are no excuse not to wash your feet.
  • Don’t shave areas other than the face and legs—it can increase the risk of acquiring a MRSA infection.
  • Clean your mats and exercise equipment before and after use.
  • Don’t share personal items, such as bar soap, towels, water bottles, and protective equipment.
  • Launder your workout clothes and towels every day after your workout. Disinfect protective equipment.
  • Dry feet and groin areas completely.
  • If necessary use a 20 percent aluminum chloride foot powder to prevent fungal growth.
  • If you get an infection, stay away from public facilities until a doctor clears you to return.

Kevin McCarthy, associate editor

For more information about gyms and gym safety, see our report on health clubs.

*links to PDF

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