10 Nasty Infections You Could Catch at the Gym
You go the gym to for your health—but the gym itself can be a breeding ground for germs and bacteria that could make you sick.
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What It Is: An inflammation of the hair follicles on your body that may be caused by sweat and heat (heat rash), bacteria, and fungus, among many other causes,” says Ross Radusky, MD, a dermatologist at SoHo Skin & Laser Dermatology, PC.
In the case of a heat rash, the pressure from your clothes can choke off hair follicles. Bacterial and fungal folliculitis can be spread by sharing towels and loofa sponges, says Dr. Radusky.
Symptoms: Look for red, sometimes tender bumps around each hair follicle. There may or may not be pus.
How to Treat It: If you sweat a lot, wear moisture-wicking clothing and be sure to shower and towel off well. “A good antibacterial body wash (CLn SportWash) can help minimize the more harmful bacteria on the skin. I also really like Paula’s Choice Clear Acne Body Spray with salicylic acid which can gently dry out the infected or inflamed hair follicles, says Dr. Radusky.
(Don’t miss why you shouldn’t re-wear sweaty gym clothes.)
Ringworm (tinea corporis)
What It Is: A common infection of the skin caused by a variety of fungi. You can catch it from skin-to-skin contact, dirty towels, wet gym shower floors, and other infected surfaces, says Dr. Radusky.
Symptoms: Look for a raised, ring-like, red patch of skin with scale along the periphery. Common areas for ringworm to show up include the chest, back, buttocks, and thighs—but in reality, the rash can be anywhere on your body.
How to Treat It: Try over-the-counter medication such as miconazole or clotrimazole creams. If these don’t seem to improve the redness or scale, visit a dermatologist. He or she can test the rash and prescribe an oral treatment if topical creams won’t cut it. Protect yourself by cleaning off benches and machines before using them. Don’t ignore the rash when it’s at its early stages; it can easily spread around your body, so be sure to treat it as soon as you find it, says Dr. Radusky.
What It Is: Jock itch, otherwise known as tinea cruris, is a fungal infection of the groin. Despite the name, it can also affect women (often under the bra line); however, men get it more often because of friction and humidity, says Dr. Radusky.
Symptoms: “The first sign is usually itch,” says Dr. Radusky. “Next look for a light pink or red rash with scaly flakes, usually on the outer edge of the rash.
How to Treat It: Start with a dry zinc oxide powder that decreases humidity. Look for ones with antifungal properties too, like Zeasorb Powder. Make sure you’re showering immediately after a workout and look for underwear that specifically wicks away moisture. If the powder alone isn’t helping, you can add an over-the-counter drug like clotrimazole 1% or Tolnaftate 1% creams. Apply the cream in a thin layer and then add the powder. If you’re not seeing an improvement in a few weeks, or if the redness is spreading or is characterized by painful cracked skin, it’s a good idea to check in with your doctor, says Dr. Radusky. Check out 10 itches you should never ever scratch.
What It Is: “A common fungal infection of the foot that you get from skin-to-skin contact, wet gym shower floors, and pools,” says Dr. Radusky.
Symptoms: Itching is the most common complaint. Look for a raised red rash with scaling (much like ringworm); typically, the sides of the feet and between the toes are prone areas.
How To Treat It: While athlete’s foot can be treated topically with antifungal creams and powders such as Lotrimin, severe rashes may require a short course of prescription antifungal therapy. Prevention is the best treatment; always wear shoes or flip-flops: “It’s really important to keep your feet off the ground, literally, at the gym,” says Dr. Radusky. Keeping your feet dry is also important. “If you’re a naturally heavy sweater, especially on the feet, dust your toes lightly with an anti-fungal powder before and after your workouts to minimize the chances of catching this itchy condition,” says Dr. Radusky. Check out 8 natural home remedies for athlete’s foot.
What It Is: “Lice is an infestation of the head, groin, or body by wingless insects,” says Dr. Radusky. Note that lice can infest any curly-haired parts of the body, including your chest, armpits, eyebrows, eyelashes, and beard. You need direct contact to get the bugs: Hair, brushes, hats, towels, clothing—if they’re from an infected person, tag, you’re it.
Symptoms: Intense itching is the most common.
How To Treat It: There are several over-the-counter FDA-approved treatments for head lice. Importantly, you don’t have to shave all your hair off. Treat yourself with either permethrin 1% (Nix) or pyrethrins with piperonyl butoxide (RID). Smart gym hygiene is important: Wipe down the bench with a sanitary wipe. Avoid sharing caps, towels, and brushes. If you shave at the gym or style your hair after a workout, keep your brushes and blades in an air-tight resealable bag, says Dr. Radusky. This will kill any potential critter that finds its way into your gym bag. (Here are 10 home remedies for lice that may really work.)
What It Is: An infection of the foot by a type of human papillomavirus (HPV).
Symptoms: Inspect your feet for cauliflower-like bumps that can have little black dots in them. “These are actually little blood vessels the virus hijacks from your circulation to keep it well fed, says Dr. Radusky.
How to Treat It: Here’s an at-home treatment suggested by Dr. Radusky: “I typically recommend my patients soak their feet nightly for 10 minutes before applying a solution of OTC salicylic acid. Apply duct tape and in the morning, rip off the adhesive, and cover with a light layer of vaseline and a bandage. And grab a pumice stone to remove the dead skin after the 10-minute soak,” says Dr. Radusky. (Here’s how to use a pumice stone for the best results.)
Or visit your dermatologist for definitive treatment, which may include freezing therapy, laser therapy, injection of a medication that will get rid of the wart, or heat therapy, says Dr. Radusky. Here are an additional 12 home remedies for warts.
What It Is: Molluscum contagiosum is an infection of the skin caused by a pox virus. You contract it through direct skin-to-skin contact, pools, dirty towels, and sexual contact, says Dr. Radusky.
Symptoms: Look for small, raised, round, pink, or skin-colored bumps, says Dr. Radusky. “These may be confused for pimples, and when you squeeze them a firm white secretion is seen. But be warned—those secretions are actually the most contagious part of the viral skin rash and you can infect other parts of the body,” says Dr. Radusky.
How to Treat It: If you notice anything like this on your skin, be sure to visit your dermatologist, who can establish the diagnosis and either freeze it, heat it, or extract it, says Dr. Radusky.
What It Is: “S. aureus is bacteria naturally found on the skin and in the respiratory tracts (nose, mouth, throat, lungs),” says Shanna Levine, MD, internist and clinical instructor of medicine at Mount Sinai Hospital.
Symptoms: If it enters your body, it can have pretty nasty physical effects. “It may form an abscess, impetigo, or folliculitis, but also may present as a warm, tender bump, or clogged hair follicle. It can also lead to fevers, fatigue, and chills,” says Dr. Levine.
How to Treat It: It may require drainage if there is an abscess and oral antibiotics. “A pimple surrounding a hair follicle can be treated at home. But any redness of the skin that is not limited to the hair follicle should be treated by a physician,” says Dr. Levine. Be sure to clean any equipment you bring to the gym with sterilizing fluids, like rubbing alcohol.
What It Is: “Nearly all cases of skin and soft tissue infections are caused by staph or strep bacteria,” says Dr. Levine. But S. pyogenes is the main cause of cellulitis, a painful skin infection that usually starts from a cut or opening on the skin.
Symptoms: This infection causes swelling, warmth, blistering, pain, as well as a possible fever that spreads quickly. Pre-existing skin conditions like jock itch or ringworm can make you more susceptible, explains Dr. Levine; so can poor circulation, a prior history of infection, or a compromised immune system, which can happen with conditions like diabetes, cancer, and autoimmune diseases. “This is due to poor circulation contributing to poor wound healing,” says Dr. Levine.
How to Treat It: Depending on the severity of the infection, the treatment will be topical, oral, or worst case, intravenous antibiotics.
What It Is: The most common cause of toenail fungus is distal subungual onychomycosis, the same fungus that causes athlete’s foot. And like athlete’s foot, it is commonly contracted from locker room floors and wet surfaces near pools.
Symptoms: You’ll notice a change in the texture of your toenails. Your toenails may become thickened and yellow, and may also have a crumbly texture.
How to Treat It: Try an antifungal powder. But you may need to visit your dermatologist for a stronger prescription topical or oral medication, such as Ciclopirox or Fluconazole. It can take three months for nail fungus to clear up. Learn what a podiatrist has to say about treating toenail fungus.
- Ross Radusky, MD, a dermatologist at SoHo Skin & Laser Dermatology, PC
- Shanna Levine, MD, internist and clinical instructor of medicine at Mount Sinai Hospital
- Merck Manual Professional Version: "Onychomycosis"
- American Academy of Dermatology: "NAIL FUNGUS: DIAGNOSIS AND TREATMENT"