dave-mittlemanWhen you go to the gym do you regularly wash your hands before and after using the equipment? Do you also use your own mats to practice yoga or other floor exercises at the gym, and do you take a shower immediately after working out and change into a pair of clean clothes? Finally, do you use your own water bottle, razors, and bar soap? If you didn’t answer yes to all of these questions, then you are putting yourself at serious risk of developing a skin infection, one of the most common afflictions affecting athletes.

You might assume that skin infections are relatively harmless, easily cured, or will just go away on their own. However, consider the experience of one young athlete from Drexel University in Philadelphia, who suffered needlessly because of a supposedly “minor” skin infection. Kyle Frey is a 21-year-old junior who wrestles competitively for the university. One day last winter he noticed that he had a small pimple on his arm. Thinking nothing of the small irritation, he competed in a wrestling match that Saturday. By the next morning, Mr. Frey’s “small pimple” had ballooned to the size of a tennis ball and had become very painful. Mr. Frey’s athletic trainer insisted that he go to the emergency room, where doctors immediately lanced and cultured the lesion. According to the results of their tests, the pimple was actually the skin infection MRSA, or the potentially deadly staphylococcus infection that is most resistant to antibiotics. Subsequently, Mr. Frey spent five more days in the hospital so that doctors could continuously clean, monitor, and treat the lesion with antibiotics until the infection went away.

In June, the National Athletic Trainers’ Association released a report on the causes, prevention, and treatment of skin diseases in athletes. In that report, the authors warn that “skin infections in athletes are extremely common” and account for more than half of the outbreaks of infectious diseases. To protect yourself from serious skin infections, the authors suggest that you should always assume that you are exposed to contaminants whenever you go to the gym. Read on for more ways that you can protect before, after, and during your workouts:

  1. Hand hygiene: washing your hands is key to infection prevention. For example, sneezing into one’s hand and then touching exercise equipment can easily spread dangerous bacteria on to those who use the same equipment after you.
  2. Always take a shower after working out: sorry ladies, but men tend to be better about taking their post-workout showers than you. However, men still often fail to completely wash their bodies when they do shower, including their feet. A good gym should provide antibacterial liquid soap for members to use.
  3. Keep your dirty and clean clothes separated: according to the authors of the NATA study, in addition to showering and putting on clean clothes after your workouts, you should also use two gym bags to keep your dirty and clean clothes separated. Don’t put the workout clothes in with the clothes you plan to change into after showering.
  4. Avoid fungal infections: since gyms tend to be damp, humid, and hot, bacteria is easily able to flourish on many different surfaces. Keep yourself protected by changing your athletic socks and underwear immediately after working out to keep sweat from collecting; thoroughly drying out your armpits, groin, and toes after showering; and consider wearing shower shoes in the shower areas, as long as they don’t prevent you from soaping your feet.
  5. Check out the gym’s daily cleaning routine before signing up for a membership: before signing up at a facility, quiz the management about the cleaning agents that they use (all should be approved by the Environmental Protection Agency), as well as the daily cleaning schedule for all surfaces and equipment. If exercise mats aren’t cleaned between classes, consider bringing your own. A good gym should always provide antibacterial cleaners and wipes for members to use to clean equipment after working out.