MRSA remains a danger for athletes

Methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus (MRSA) infections are proving to be a more dangerous opponent than any an athlete faces on the field or court. Schools and teams are spending big money to fight them. You can take steps to protect yourself too.

In the last few years, several NFL players have contracted these dangerous antibiotic-resistant staph infections. Three members the Tampa Bay Buccaneers suffered infections during the 2013 season. Two of these three players never returned to the field.

New York Giants tight end Daniel Fells developed MRSA in his leg in 2015. He underwent at least 10 surgeries. Reports at the time suggested he was close to losing his foot. He retired a year later. Numerous other teams have had players develop MRSA infections in the last decade. In fact, an NFL physicians survey revealed that 33 players had these infections between 2006 and 2008.

A Division III college football player, Ricky Lannetti, died from an MRSA infection in 2003.

It’s not just football players at risk. Los Angeles Dodgers’ third baseman Justin Turner and Philadelphia Phillies shortstop Freddy Galvis suffered these infections. They have been reported among athletes from the pros to high school in sports such as soccer, basketball, wrestling and martial arts.

This bacteria exists throughout our daily environment. A small percentage of people carry it on their skin or in their nose without contracting an infection.

Athletes are much more likely than the general population to carry MRSA. They often use shared equipment, like training tables and water bottles. They can also develop small abrasions or skin wounds that can become infected if they are not covered.

MRSA spreads among athletes easily with direct skin-to-skin contact. A study of athletes at Vanderbilt University found that athletes who played contact sports were more than twice as likely to have MRSA on their skin compared to athletes of noncontact sports. According to a Duke study, pro football players are 7 to 10 times more likely to carry MRSA than the general public.

MRSA infections usually present with a small, red, swollen and painful bump on the skin that is filled with pus. If treated early with the proper antibiotics and draining the infection, the patient can recover quickly.

MRSA can spread rapidly into muscle, bone and blood if not treated. These infections can become limb- and life-threatening, requiring multiple surgeries and occasionally amputations.

Many professional teams, colleges and high schools are going all out to prevent MRSA infections among their athletes. Machines costing tens of thousands of dollars use ozone gas instead of detergent to sterilize uniforms and equipment. A system that sprays silver and hydrogen peroxide on every surface in the locker rooms and training rooms has become popular as well.

Parents at every level can talk to the coaches and athletic trainers about what precautions they are taking to prevent infections. The athletes play an important role in limiting the spread of this bacteria too.

Athletes should wash their hands or use hand sanitizer after practices and games and after using shared equipment, like weights.

Despite the reluctance many athletes have to showering in public, taking a shower after games and practices is crucial. It can significantly decrease the chance that MRSA exposure while playing can turn into an infection.

After the shower, an athlete should use his or her own towel. A study found that MRSA infections were eight times more likely among high school football players who shared a towel.

Along the same lines, athletes should not share bar soap but instead use soap from liquid soap dispensers. They should not share razors or other personal items.

If the school or team doesn’t do it, wash the uniform and clothing thoroughly after every practice and game.

Cover any skin cuts or abrasions with clean, dry bandages. If you think you have an infection or wonder if a wound could be at risk for infection, show it to your athletic trainer or team doctor. Pay particular attention to any areas of redness, warmth, pain or pus.

It may be impossible to completely defeat MRSA. If we exercise caution, we can prevent its spread and decrease the risk of severe infections that jeopardize athletes’ playing careers and lives.

Dr. Geier is an orthopedic surgeon in Charleston and author of ‘That’s Gotta Hurt: The Injuries That Changed Sports Forever.’ – by David Geier, Post & Courier (Charleston, SC)