You probably don’t think about it, but a typical locker room is a nice little Caribbean vacation spot for germs. It’s naturally warm and moist. People come and go, often bringing colds, flu or other infections with them.
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Yes, you visit the gym to improve your health, not catch a bug. But remember: Even though fungus and bacteria may lurk, you can avoid them fairly easily with some simple bug-busting tips.
The two most common issues you’ll run into are athlete’s foot and staphylococcus aureus, says Robert Gray, Coordinator of Athletic Training Community Affairs for Cleveland Clinic Sports Health. And realizing they’re there is half the battle.
How to avoid athlete’s foot
Athlete’s foot is caused by dermatophyte, a type of fungus, that thrives in warm, moist environments like bathrooms and showers. The most common way to get it is by coming into contact with surfaces contaminated with the fungus.
Symptoms of athlete’s foot include a scaly, itchy rash on the feet that can sting or burn and raw skin between the toes. You typically can treat it with an over-the-counter antifungal cream. If that is ineffective, your physician can give you a prescription medication.
Aside from washing and drying your feet off well after exercising — especially between the toes — your main defense against athlete’s foot is reducing your exposure.
Mr. Gray recommends minimizing contact with locker room and bathroom floors. Wear flip-flops — even in the shower. You can also protect your bare feet by standing on a clean towel while changing your clothes. Don’t forget to treat your shoes with an anti-fungal powder to avoid the potential for recurrence.
Best defense against staph infections
The staphylococcus aureus bacteria causes staph infections. Many people carry the bacteria on their skin and about 30 percent carry it in their noses. It is typically harmless, but it can cause skin infections or become more serious when it moves into the blood stream. It also can infect the heart or lungs.
Staph can enter the body through a cut in the skin. Mr. Gray says he sees it most often in those who have an open wound or someone coming to the gym after surgery. But it can happen with any nick or cut in the skin, he says.
“If you have an ingrown hair or a nick around the cuticles or nails, you don’t always think a small area can create a problem. But infections will invade the weakest link and that is always a crack in the skin,” he says.
A staph infection may show up as a red, painful, swollen boil or abscess on the skin. Your doctor typically can treat it with antibiotics or by draining it — and in some cases, both. However, some types (such as Methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus (MRSA) are antibiotic-resistant.
The best way to avoid a staph infection is to maintain good hygiene. Again, minimize your contact with surfaces in the locker room when possible. Wear flip-flops or put a towel on the floor where you stand or on the bench where you sit. If you have an open wound, cover it and keep it clean.
Take time to clean up and air out
Washing is also an important deterrent to bacteria. In a locker room, either shower and dry off well or at least wash your hands before you touch your eyes or mouth.
Typically, the gym cleans its equipment regularly. But you can clean the equipment yourself, too. Also, you can bring your own towels or disinfectant wipes to use on things like hair dryers or lockers if you feel more comfortable.
If you have kids who use a school locker room, make sure they know to avoid contact with communal surfaces as much as possible. Encourage them to wash their hands well and to protect their bare feet if they change clothes or take a shower after their activities.
“In high school, kids play a game, take off their pads and jerseys, get on the bus and go back to school,” Mr. Gray says. “Rarely do kids shower anymore before they go home. So you need to make sure your kids get themselves cleaned off.”
They also may stuff their sweaty uniforms into a gym bag and not give them another thought. Washing their uniforms regularly and airing out shoes or cleats and any pads or braces they might wear can help protect against locker room germs as well.
The bottom line: Don’t let worries about germs keep you or your family away from the gym. Just make sure you take some common-sense steps to protect yourself from whatever may lurk in the locker room.