It’s not difficult to see how coughs, sneezes, and unwashed hands might quickly spread germs from one treadmill to the next. But, it turns out, the majority of infections people pick up at the gym are actually those that affect the skin. That’s because, along with sweat, fellow gym-goers can leave a host of other nasty things behind on shared fitness equipment and surfaces; Things like bacteria, viruses, and fungi that can cause itchy, painful, or even serious skin conditions if they make their way into the body. These pathogens thrive in warm, moist places like sweaty fitness equipment, locker room showers, and shared surfaces like gym mats.
Research has found that gyms contain high amounts of viruses and bacteria on various surfaces (e.g., floors, gym mats, handrails) and exercise equipment. One study found that over 70% of bacteria found in gyms is potentially harmful to humans and that equipment like free weights can harbor 362 times more germs than a public toilet seat. And a University of California-Irvine study found that Staphylococcus bacteria –– spread easily through breaks in the skin and infections, can survive on hard surfaces like gym equipment and benches for 72 hours.
Follow these tips to help prevent picking up skin infections at the gym.
Common Skin Infections Linked to Gyms
The four infections listed below are among the most common skin problems acquired at the gym. If you’re experiencing symptoms of any of these infections, be sure to consult your doctor right away to determine the best course of treatment.
Folliculitis is a common infection that resembles itchy red bumps or acne. If you think you have it, resist the urge to scratch; the spots can turn into crusty sores that cause permanent scars.
The condition is caused by microbes like fungus or bacteria that work their way inside hair follicles in the skin, causing infection. Increased sweat levels, often experienced while working out, make you more vulnerable to this condition. In severe cases, folliculitis may look less like little red bumps and more like large blisters or even a large, swollen mass. According to the Mayo Clinic, the most severe cases of folliculitis are caused by Staphylococcus bacteria.
2. Athlete's Foot
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), “athlete’s foot” is a type of ringworm that develops on the feet. The first symptom of this infection is typically an itch around the soles of the feet, and dry, cracked skin between the does. Occasionally, athlete’s foot can cause itchy blisters. This common type of foot fungus is prevalent in gyms and fitness centers and thrives in moist environments, like locker room showers. Excessive sweating, as well as contact with contaminated surfaces like locker room floors, dirty yoga mats, or shared floor mats, can spread this type of ringworm, making the gym a hotbed of infection. Sweaty gym shoes can also exacerbate the fungus.
This highly contagious infection is typically caused by Streptococcus or Staphylococcus aureus bacteria that enter the body through a break in the skin. In some cases, impetigo can also affect healthy skin. The bacteria thrive in warm, humid environments and are easily transmitted through skin-to-skin contact with someone who’s infected or contaminated surfaces. The infection typically starts like red, itchy sores that eventually break open and form a “honey-colored” scab.
4. Staph Infections and MRSA
Generally, Staphylococcus aureus (staph) bacteria live harmlessly on the skin or in nasal passages in about one-third of people. However, about two in every 100 people carry Methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus (MRSA), the staph strain that is incredibly hard-to-treat and resistant to many antibiotics. MRSA can cause life-threatening pneumonia and bloodstream infections, which can lead to sepsis and death. Not long ago, MRSA infections were rare and primarily associated with hospital stays, but since the turn of the century, the bacteria have been turning up in daily settings, including gyms, athletic facilities, and health clubs.
The highly contagious bacteria can spread through skin-to-skin contact or by touching contaminated surfaces. MRSA can survive on some surfaces for hours, days, weeks, or even months. It can spread to people who touch a contaminated surface and cause infections if MRSA gets into a cut, scrape or open wound.
How to Avoid Skin Infections at the Gym
Follow these strategies to help avoid picking up skin infections at the gym:
- Wear loose-fitting, moisture-wicking clothes. This will help to keep your skin dry while you’re working out. Remember to wash sweaty gym clothes, swimsuits, and used towels after every use.
- Safeguard your skin. Always keep cuts clean and covered, and avoid using locker room showers, steam rooms, saunas, and hot tubs until your wound is healed. Consider keeping a barrier (like a towel) between your skin and equipment that others use, such as weight-training machines and exercise bikes.
- Never walk barefoot at a public gym. Always wear proper shoes while working out and wear flip-flops when walking around pools, locker rooms, and showers.
- Keep your hands clean. Wash or sanitize your hands immediately after working out.
- Clean and disinfect fitness equipment with Vital Oxide before and after use. Vital Oxide is ideal for use in gyms, fitness centers, and health clubs. This multi-tasking solution kills 99.9% of viruses and bacteria, including “superbugs” like MRSA, and won’t corrode treated surfaces. Clean and disinfect in two easy steps: First, spray and wipe Vital Oxide to clean, then spray and leave behind to disinfect. In cases where more frequent disinfection of surfaces results in a possible buildup of dry disinfectant residue, a wipe down with a moist towel or microfiber cloth of surfaces that come into contact with clothing (chairs, exercise equipment seats, floor mats, etc.) will prevent any possible discoloration of fabrics. Vital Oxide can also be used to sanitize and deodorize soft surfaces like gym bags and shoes.