As you head back into your local gym or fitness center this month to make good on your New Year’s resolution to get more exercise, the American Academy of Dermatology (AAD) wants you to remember to protect your skin.
That’s because gyms are notorious breeding grounds for a host of unpleasant pathogens that can cause skin infections.
Take just one group of pathogens: bacteria. In 2014, researchers reported finding 25 different types of bacteria, including staphylococcus, on exercise equipment, floor mats, handrails and other surfaces at four fitness centers in Memphis.
“While skin infections are not a reason to cancel your gym membership, it’s important to follow a few simple steps to avoid germs while you’re at the gym,” said Dr. Brian Adams, a dermatologist at the University of Cincinnati, in a statement released this week by the AAD. “The bacteria, viruses and fungi that cause skin infections to develop thrive in warm, moist places like sweaty exercise equipment and locker room showers.”
Most common infections
You can pick up a variety of skin infections at gyms, but here are the five most common ones, as described by Consumer Reports:
Athlete’s Foot and Jock Itch
These two infections are caused by a group of fungi that grow in warm, moist areas, including damp towels, sweaty workout clothes, and wet floors. The fungi cause a red rash that often itches like crazy. The affected skin may also peel or appear scaly and blister. Men are more prone to jock itch than women. However, women may develop fungal infections under their breasts, and both sexes can get them in their armpits.
The culprit here is the bacterium Psuedomonas aeruginosa, which can be found in swimming pools and hot tubs when levels of disinfectants such as chlorine are too low. (The same bug causes swimmer’s ear, a common infection of the outer ear canal.) Hot tub rash typically starts as itchy spots in the swimsuit area that evolve into a bumpy red rash. You might also develop pus-filled blisters around hair follicles.
This highly contagious infection is typically caused by staph or strep bacteria that get into your body through a break in the skin, such as a cut or an insect bite. In some cases, impetigo can also invade healthy skin. The bacteria grow in warm, humid environments and are easily transmitted through skin-to-skin contact with someone who’s infected or through contaminated towels and sports equipment. The infection typically starts out as red, pimplelike sores that fill with pus. After a few days, the sores will break open and form a thick yellow-brown crust.
These are caused by the human papillomavirus, or HPV, which can infect the skin on the bottom of your foot if you go barefoot in the gym locker room or showers. (The strain of HPV that causes plantar warts is different from the one that causes genital warts.) A tough, calluslike spot may form, and it may be painful to walk on. Tiny black dots may appear on the surface of the wart, a result of dried spots of blood in the blood vessels feeding it.
Staph Infections and MRSA
The staph bacteria behind these infections are commonly found on the skin or in the nose of healthy people, Vasquez says. Research shows that about one-third of people carry garden-variety staph bacteria and about 2 percent harbor the antibiotic-resistant form, MRSA. These bacteria can infect the skin through cuts or abrasions — even a shaving nick or pimple can provide a place for the germs to take hold. In early stages, a staph or MRSA skin infection looks like a spider or insect bite. The bump may become red, swollen, warm to the touch, painful, and full of pus or other fluid. In some cases, people with one of these infections run a fever.
What you can do
To avoid “catching” these and other infectious skin conditions at the gym, Adams and his colleagues at the AAD offer these tips:
Wear loose-fitting, moisture-wicking clothes. This will help keep your skin dry and prevent germs from growing. Remember to wash your gym clothes after wearing them.
Always wear shoes, especially around pools, and in locker rooms and showers. Keep a pair of shower shoes, flip-flops or sandals in your gym bag. Never walk barefoot at a public gym.
Keep any cuts clean and covered. Avoid using saunas, steam rooms and hot tubs until your wound is healed.
Disinfect equipment before and after using it. Clean equipment with disinfectant wipes or spray. For additional protection, consider adding a barrier, such as a towel, between your skin and shared surfaces, like workout benches and bicycle seats. When it’s possible to provide your own equipment, such as a yoga mat, bring it from home rather than using the gym’s.
Wash or sanitize your hands immediately after working out.
Shower as soon as possible. After showering, put on clean clothes, including clean socks and underwear. Never share personal care items, including towels and razors.
Finally, if you do see signs of a skin infection, such as pain, swelling, pus or persistent redness, get it checked out by a dermatologist as soon as possible.
FMI: The AAD has detailed information about contagious skin infections — including photos that can help you identify them — on its website.