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Germ Alert

Skin infections are gross.It’s bad enough when they appear as pimples or puss-filled boils on your skin, but if left untreated, some can become life-threatening. All gyms are veritable smorgasbords of viruses and bacteria, but healthy skin provides an effective first line of defense against infection. But once broken skin (ripped calluses on your palms? deadlifting scabs on your shins?) enters the equation, however, the risk of infection skyrockets. 

When identified early, most bugs can be squashed with a course of antibiotics, but superbugs like MRSA (methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus) are complicating the treatment process. Still, common sense can prevail. “All the things your grandmother told you to do can prevent these infections,” says Dr. Michael Kelly, an internist and sports medicine specialist who has treated countless skin infections through his involvement with high school and college boxers, wrestlers and mixed martial artists. “Wash your hands. Wash your clothes. If it’s dirty or, in this case, sweaty, don’t touch it without cleaning it first.” 

Because many of these bugs are ubiquitous in gyms, you can almost guarantee you’ve been exposed to something every time you work out. To decrease the time the nasties spend on your skin, shower immediately after working out. Want motivation? The following descriptions of some of the most common bugs will have you racing for a bar of soap. 



E. coli bacteria, found in the intestines and stool of animals, is typically transferred to humans through tainted food but also can be caught from contaminated gym surfaces. Infection with the bacteria is most often associated with severe abdominal cramping, diarrhea and nausea and can lead to pneumonia, but it also can cause a rash that presents as small, hive-like bumps.

Treatment:Antibiotics can clean up an E. coli infection, but drinking plenty of water will also help the body stay hydrated and clear the toxins.



This bacteria, found in human intestines and stool, can be spread through person-to-person contact or through contact with contaminated surfaces. “Klebsiella thrives in dark, moist environments like locker rooms, showers, hot tubs and indoor pool decks,” Kelly says. Infected skin typically becomes red, itchy, tender and swollen within a few hours of contact with the bacteria. It also can lead to bloodstream and urinary tract infections, pneumonia and meningitis.

Treatment:A course of strong oral antibiotics will do the trick.



You know this virus as HPV, the most common of sexually transmitted diseases. But you don’t have to have sex to get it. HPV thrives in damp areas, like locker rooms and showers, and on sweaty gym equipment. It causes cauliflower-like plantar warts on the feet and palmar warts on the hands, but it also can cause warts on other parts of the body. Some strains of the virus can cause cervical cancer in women and anal or penile cancer in men. 

Treatment:Outbreaks can be treated with topical procedures and oral medications, but there is no cure for HPV. There are vaccines that help guard against the strains that cause genital warts and cancers, but they won’t combat the other symptoms.



You know this bacteria as the cause of strep throat and other respiratory infections, but there are more than 20 different types of strep bacteria that can cause skin infections. Strep can spread through person-to-person contact, through contact with contaminated surfaces and via airborne droplets. Like staph, strep can form puss-filled boils and carbuncles but also can present as erysipelas, a flat, red blotch on the skin “as if someone smacked you,” Kelly says. Advanced cases can lead to more serious infections like pneumonia and meningitis.

Treatment:Infections are treated with oral and topical antibiotics or, in more serious cases, intravenous antibiotics. 


Like HPV, the viruses HSV 1 and 2 are common sexually transmitted diseases that also can be transmitted simply through contact with infected skin or contaminated surfaces. Herpes sores generally present as tiny, fluid-filled vesicles, or blisters, on the skin. The skin around the blister may become red and inflamed. Herpetic infection also can become secondarily infected with staph, which forms a golden crust on the vesicles, or strep, which increases their redness. Even more horrifyingly: “If an athlete touches an infected surface, then wipes his face, herpes 1 and 2 can get into the eyes and cause scarring of the cornea and permanent vision loss,” Kelly says. 

Treatment:As with HPV, HSV 1 and 2 outbreaks can be controlled, but there is no cure for the virus. 



This bacteria, commonly known as staph, causes skin infections and diseases that can vary from mild to potentially fatal. It spreads through contact, can live on pretty much any surface and typically presents as a small pimple or area of redness on the skin. As it progresses, staph can become a boil or multiple boils that can coalesce into a larger infection that spreads faster as it gets deeper into the skin. In severe cases, it can result in life-threatening infections such as sepsis, pneumonia or meningitis.

Treatment:When caught quickly, most staph infections can be handled with a course of antibiotics. However, though rare, MRSA can be present in gyms and is resistant to antibiotic therapy. “Some people get colonized with MRSA in their noses but are only carriers and do not get infections themselves,” Kelly says. “If they wipe or blow their noses and don’t wash their hands, they can transmit everywhere they go.”



Blood-born pathogens like hepatitis B and C and HIV are highly infectious and can survive for long periods outside the body. In the gym setting, blood from ripped hands can stay behind on pull-up bars, barbells, dumbbells, handles of all kinds and any other object or surface a person touches. “Most of the time, washing the hands well with anti-bacterial soap can still prevent these kind of infections,” Kelly says. “When blood is involved, gym equipment should be cleaned with a product containing bleach.” 

Treatment:There is no one standard course of treatment for any of these serious viral infections. Anti-viral therapies might be prescribed, particularly in the case of HIV, while hepatitis B might be left to clear up on its own.


Stack the deck against infection by making a habit out of these practices.

MIND YOUR MITTS:Wash your hands with soap and water, for at least 20 seconds. That’s “Happy Birthday” two times through.

SANITIZER = SANITY:Use hand sanitizer that contains at least 60 percent alcohol.

WEAR IT, WASH IT: Gym clothes should only be worn once between washings.

SHOWER ASAP:Resist the urge to crash on the couch or go out to eat in your sweaty clothes.

PROTECT YOUR FEET:Wear flip-flops in the gym locker room and shower.

CARE FOR WOUNDS: Cover broken skin with a waterproof bandage and avoid touching common surfaces until it heals.

DON’T SHARE: Avoid using other people’s towels, water bottles, mats, razors or soap.

WIPE YOUR EQUIPMENT:All of it. And pay extra attention to porous surfaces like leather medicine balls and ab mats, where bacteria can live longer.