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The Dirty Side of Sports

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By Dr. Priya Balachandran

A number of recent articles highlight the ever-present risk of infections among student athletes. Infections are caused by bacteria which for all practical purposes, are unseen by the naked eye, and can quietly, but purposefully, move from one student to the next and to the environment.  Teams have been required to withdraw from tournaments due to outbreaks of MRSA, an antibiotic resistant form of Staphylococcus aureus.  The reality is that in a student-athlete community these bacteria flourish and here’s why:

  1. Skin-to-skin contact in sports like football, rugby, basketball and wrestling facilitate spread of bacteria between the athletes. In fact, high contact sports are so well-known for their high infection rates that there are even viruses named after them: Herpes gladiatorum and Herpes rugbiorum. 
  1. Poor hygiene. With multiple practices in a single day, on top of studying for tests and quizzes, it can be difficult for student-athletes to find the time to take a shower or do their laundry. Bacteria can build up on the skin and in fabric, especially if worn for a second or third time before laundering. That, combined with low immune defense and high stress makes for the perfect storm of infectious disease susceptibility among athletes. 
  1. Practice facilities are shared by multiple teams spreading bacteria from one sport to another and locker rooms are a breeding ground for infections. Student-athletes are vulnerable to fungal skin infections, like ringworm and athlete’s foot which are easily transmitted in the locker rooms through contaminated surfaces. In fact, sharing a towel makes the chance of MRSA infection eight times more likely. 
  1. Sports equipment like jerseys, practice uniforms and shoulder pads allow bacteria to grow freely during use. The sweat from practice and games provides additional fuel for growth of these nasty germs. Sports apparel is probably the least appreciated mode of transfer that are in fact one of the easiest to address.  

What can student-athletes do to limit exposure?

There are several simple steps that can be taken to limit the risk of infection:

  1. Wear clean clothing.
  2. Shower immediately after training sessions, games and practices.
  3. Do not share towels, clothes, razors, gear or water bottles with others.
  4. Cover cuts and bruises with band aids or wound dressings until healing is complete.
  5. Launder all sweaty clothing immediately after practice. Consider using a residual antimicrobial treatment that provides ongoing protection to all practice and gameday fabrics.
  6. Disinfect equipment (pads, shoes, footballs, basketballs, etc.) with an antimicrobial spray.
  7. Notify an athletic trainer, coach, parent or guardian if they have any skin lesions, cuts or abrasions prior to any competition or practice.

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About the author: Dr. Balachandran joined Applied Silver, Inc. in June 2017.  She brings more than 15 years of scientific, regulatory and business experiences in the area of infectious disease and microbial monitoring. Dr. Balachandran received her Ph.D. from the University of Alabama at Birmingham.

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