Prevention and Wellness

Skin Infections in Athletes

Robert Harrington, MD, Family Medicine of Huber Heights, answers frequently asked questions about skin infections and how they affect athletes.

What are the conditions that make athletes susceptible to skin infections?

Physical contact with other athletes and with athletic equipment is the most common way skin infections are shared.

Sports like wrestling and football that have a lot of skin-to-skin contact put athletes at higher risk for skin infections than other sports. Hockey and rugby can also bring a higher risk of skin infections.

Unclean towels, uniforms, mats, equipment, and players themselves can make athletes more susceptible to skin infections.

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What are the most common bacterial infections that occur in athletes, and how are they treated? 

The most common bacterial skin infections to occur in athletes are impetigo and various staph infections, such as MRSA.

Impetigo is a cluster of red, round scaly patches that are often covered with a honey-colored crust. It often starts on the face or head, but it can spread anywhere.

Impetigo is contagious and can easily be caught through skin-to-skin contact or contact with a contaminated item or piece of equipment. It’s typically treated with an ointment or cream.

The most well-known staph infection common among athletes is MRSA, which is a serious infection that is resistant to most antibiotics. MRSA can be worse in wounds where it can become an abscess and need to be cut and drained. Often, MRSA is treated with repeated antibiotic therapy.

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What are the most common viral infections that occur in athletes, and how are they treated? 

There are three common viral skin infections in athletes. 

Herpes is a virus that causes pustules on the skin, which get crusty once they open. Once you get herpes you will have the virus forever, and the pustules will appear again and again. Treatment, including oral prescription medication, is available for herpes, but it doesn’t cure the virus.

Warts are another type of viral infection. They are spread among athletes through direct skin contact or contact with unclean equipment. Over-the-counter wart treatments are available. You can also talk to your doctor about in-office freezing treatments.

Molluscum contagiosum is another kind of viral skin infection. It causes little hard, painless bumps that can often be surrounded by a rash that resembles eczema. 

Eventually, mollusca will go away on their own, but it can spread around your body in the meantime. Getting treatment to remove the mollusca is typically recommended.

Treatment options include:

  • Cryotherapy – Your doctor will freeze the bumps, which causes the cells to die.
  • Curettage – In this minor surgical procedure, your doctor scrapes the bumps off.
  • Medication – A few medication options are available, some for use at your doctor’s office and some for at-home use.

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What are the most common fungal infections that occur in athletes, and how are they treated? 

Ringworm and athlete’s foot are the most common fungal infections to occur in athletes.

While most fungal infections are named for their location on your body, ringworm is named for how it looks. Ringworm starts as a reddish ring that clears to a skin color in the middle.

Athlete’s foot is common on athlete’s feet. It usually occurs in the space between your toes and causes itching, burning, scaly skin. 

Both ringworm and athlete’s foot can usually be treated with over-the-counter antifungal cream. Prescription medications are also available for more serious cases.

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How can athletes and coaches prevent skin infections? 

Athletes and coaches can take easy steps to prevent skin infections.

Having good hygiene is the number one step in prevention. Washing your hands, showering before and after sporting events and practices, washing clothes, and cleaning equipment are key to preventing and stopping the spread of skin infections. 

Also, remember not to share towels, soap, lotion, or other personal care items.

When using exercise equipment, lay a towel down as a protective barrier between the machine and your skin. 

Coaches need to be diligent about making sure equipment is clean and good health routines are maintained throughout every sport season.

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Source: Robert Harrington, MD, Family Medicine of Huber Heights, Premier Health, National Institutes of Health, American Academy of Orthopaedic Surgeons

Content Updated: December 14, 2018

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