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Locker Room Acquired Infections: The Hidden Foe

Simple steps can help your child stave off serious infections

Playing-field injuries aren’t the only hazard in sports. There’s a subtler threat lurking in the locker room: infections caused by germs.

One danger is athlete’s foot, a skin infection known medically as tinea pedis. It can bring itching, flaking, peeling, blistering or redness, and young and old should guard against it by keeping feet clean and dry, taking off sports shoes when the game is done, and drying carefully between the toes with a clean towel. Don’t go barefoot in public areas such as locker rooms or pools—wear flip-flops or sandals instead.

Much more serious are infections caused by a bacterium known as methicillin- resistant Staphylococcus aureus, or MRSA . MRSA can cause serious harm to skin and underlying soft tissue. In rare cases, it can spread through the bloodstream to the heart, lungs, brain and other organs, possibly even causing death.

As its name suggests, MRSA is a “staph” germ that is not eradicated by the antibiotics that usually cure staph infections. As many as half of us carry staph on our skin, explains Sheila Nolan, M.D., Chief of Pediatric Infectious Diseases at Maria Fareri Children’s Hospital at Westchester Medical Center, “but most of the time it does not cause an infection or any symptoms.”

MRSA germs are spread by skin-to-skin or skin-to-surface contact, which makes athletes prone to contamination. Even the most luxe locker rooms aren’t immune— there have been cases of MRSA infection on professional teams, too.

The most common symptom of infection is a skin boil. “It looks like a pimple at first, and then it becomes warm, large, swollen and tender,” Dr. Nolan says. If you spot such a boil, take your child to the pediatrician immediately. The first treatment may be prescription soaps and ointments. The boil may need to be drained, and the infection may respond to certain antibiotics as well.

“It is rare that MRSA causes more serious illness, but when it does, people can get sick quickly,” Dr. Nolan says. The bacterium can destroy soft tissue and can spread through the bloodstream to the heart, lungs, brain and other organs.

The best way to avoid infection is to practice good hygiene, says the doctor. Don’t let your children share towels, clothing, athletic equipment or personal items such as washcloths, sponges or razors. The germ can get into open wounds, so see that any cuts or scrapes are cleaned and treated thoroughly and covered.

Finally, your young athletes should shower after every athletic event. There’s no need to use special antibacterial soap, Dr. Nolan says. Regular soap and warm water, with careful washing, will effectively reduce the chance of infection with unwanted germs.

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