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Marion, Locker Room Bacteria, Jan 08

A Locker Room Lurker

By Marion Webb

With the excitement of the playoff games, American football fans will be glued to their television sets clamoring for their team to make it to the Super Bowl.

Supporters of ACE's home team, the San Diego Chargers, are no exception. Charger fans are celebrating their Bolts first post-season victory in more than a decade. What they may not be aware of, however, is that their team has had a long-standing battle with a potentially serious health threat lurking in the locker room. This enemy strikes unknowingly and hard, because it is an antibiotic-resistant bacteria, methicillin-resistant staphylococcus aureus, or MRSA.

"We have had suspected cases of MRSA," says Matt Summers, the assistant athletic trainer for the San Diego Chargers.

MRSA, dubbed the "superbug," doesn't just attack the Chargers or other athletic teams. Enclosed gyms, with their sweaty and bare-skinned participants, make for a particular breeding ground for the aggressive bacterium. Therefore, doctors urge gym devotees everywhere to take more responsibility to protect themselves and others from the threat.

Though a person with a strain of staph on their skin may never get sick, he or she can still pass the bacteria to others by direct skin-to-skin contact, sharing towels, razors, uniforms and equipment, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Sharing of personal items and equipment are the primary reasons for the rise of MRSA infections.

Sadly, despite such warning, the number of MRSA cases has gone up in recent years, not down, said Dr. Steve Green, chair of the department of family medicine at Sharp Rees-Steely Medical Group in San Diego.

"We rarely used to see these types of infections, now we see one (case of MRSA infection) every couple of weeks," Green says. "Most of them are not life-threatening, but the usual way we see them is as boils or deep, painful abscesses that require surgical draining."

Because MRSA is resistant against many antibiotics, doctors tend to prescribe tetracycline or sulfa drugs, which are different categories of antibiotics from the ones usually used for skin infections.

"Our problem is that MRSA infections tend to be more stubborn and need to be drained with a scalpel," Green adds. "If someone had a few of these abscesses, we take a culture from their nose to see if they are colonized with MRSA, which means they need to be treated more aggressively and take longer courses of antibiotics. In some cases, it can be life-threatening when the infection gets into the blood stream or internal organs."

With the majority of people, Green says, the cause of the infection remains unknown. But in athletes, Green has seen the most cases of MRSA in wrestlers. He finds that athletes in sports requiring close contact are especially at risk for contracting MRSA.

The best way to guard against infection is to practice good hygiene. It is vital to take immediate action at the first signs of infection; red bumps that resemble pimples, boils or spider bites and quickly grow into deep, painful abscesses.

The Chargers certainly take the threat serious. Summers outlines multiple precautionary and educational steps the team has taken to prevent its players from getting sick.

"We have placed soap dispensers in the showers filled with pHisoHex, which is an antibacterial skin cleanser. In addition, we have placed antibacterial hand sanitizers in each position meeting rooms as well as various locations around the building. We have brochures posted in the locker room and we stress the importance of bathing and using the antibacterial soap when they shower. We also stress the importance of not sharing towels, washcloths, etc. Gatorade has also helped in the prevention by providing us with towels that we use on the field that have a chemical dyed into them that helps prevent the spread of MRSA," Summers says. He notes that when an athlete shows symptoms, he is treated with aggressive prescription oral antibiotics and antibacterial cream.

"We educate the athletes about the prevention of MRSA and the importance of reporting cases very quickly so precautionary measures are taken to reduce the risk of spreading the disease," Summers explains.

All of these measures are doctor-approved. But you don't have to play in the NFL to guard against MRSA. Gym goers everywhere can do their share by practicing good hygiene with these specific actions suggested by ACE Chief Science Officer, Cedric X. Bryant, Ph.D.:
  • - Always wash your hands thoroughly with soap and water or an alcohol-based hand sanitizer before and after workouts, which is the best defense against becoming infected.

  • - Keep all cuts, scrapes, and wounds clean and covered with an appropriate bandage.

  • - Avoid all contact with the wounds and bandages of other individuals.

  • - Never share personal items, such as razors or towels.

  • - If the gym does not provide antiseptic disposable towels, disinfected sprays or wipes to clean equipment, bring your own and wipe down before and after use. Note: According to Green, using a towel alone to remove perspiration from equipment does not protect against infection.

  • - Bring a towel to use as a barrier to your skin and any contact surface on shared equipment. Always place the same side of the towel face down on the contact surface of the equipment. Use a different towel to wipe sweat off the body.

  • - Use liquid soap dispensers instead of bar soap when showering.

  • - Sit on a towel in a locker room or sauna to avoid direct contact with the benches.

  • - Cover any exercise mat with a clean towel or bring your own mat.

  • - Never touch your eyes, nose, or face during a workout, since most germs are transmitted that way.

  • - Make sure the health club is clean and well-ventilated.

  • - Ask the staff to outline the facility's cleaning and disinfection policies and procedures.

  • - Avoid exercising at the gym when you're sick to prevent spreading your germs to other gym members.

Taking immediate action is key.

"When you see pus on your skin, have it checked by a doctor early. Don't watch it for four or five days, because that way doctors can treat it better," Green advises.

At the same time, people shouldn't let fear and possible infection become another excuse to avoid exercising. If they practice good hygiene their risk of infection is extremely low, offers Bryant.

"After all, numerous studies show that, in addition to their many other health-related benefits, regular exercise and proper nutrition boost your immune system to help you better fight infections and other illnesses," Bryant said.

Marion Webb is the managing editor for the American Council on Exercise. For specific fitness-related story ideas or comments, please e-mail her directly at marion.webb@acefitness.org.