Athletes should wash their hands (and dirty gym clothes) often
PHILADELPHIA — College athletes who play contact sports are at high risk of harboring and spreading Staphylococcus microbes, including the kind resistant to a first-line antibiotic, a study finds.
Staph is a common bacterium that “colonizes” most people, meaning it lives in them unnoticed, often in the nasal passages. Even methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus, or MRSA, colonizes at least 5 percent of people in the United States, says epidemiologist Natalia Jimenez-Truque of Vanderbilt University Medical Center in Nashville. Colonization increases the risk of an infection occurring if the microbes grow out of control and contributes to the spread of the microbes to others. MRSA kills up to 18,000 people per year in the United States by infecting the blood, lungs, skin and other body parts.
To test for MRSA colonization, Jimenez-Truque and her colleagues tracked 377 varsity athletes at Vanderbilt for two years, including 224 who were in contact sports such as football, lacrosse, soccer and basketball. The researchers obtained monthly nasal and throat swabs from the players.
Between 8 and 31 percent of the contact-sport players carried MRSA at some point in the study, more than twice the rate seen in athletes in sports without much person-to-person contact, such as tennis, swimming, track or baseball, Jimenez-Truque reported October 9 at ID Week, an annual meeting of the Infectious Diseases Society of America and related health care associations.
Jimenez-Truque’s findings point to the need for an infection-control strategy in contact sports, said David Calfee, an internist at Weill Cornell Medical College in New York City.
Football players were the most likely to be colonized with MRSA, said study coauthor Buddy Creech, a pediatrician at Vanderbilt. He said improving locker-room hygiene would lower colonization rates, starting with regular showers and hand washing. Trainers need to ban the sharing of towels and razors, he said. There is frequent body shaving among athletes, he said, because many of them regularly tape ankles or other body parts, and it hurts a lot less to remove tape from shaved skin than unshaved.
These infection control steps need to extend to high school and middle school, and parents need to see that clothes are cleaned promptly, said Jimenez-Truque. When athletes come home after practice with a nasty gym bag, “somebody needs to wash that in hot water,” she said, rather than leave the microbes “to incubate in that smelly bag.”
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