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Preventing Staph Infections In Contact Sports

As student athletes begin a new school year, players, staff and parents need to be mindful of staph infections.  They’re the result of bacteria we all have on our skin and in nasal passages. But the director of primary care sports medicine at University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center says contact sports raise the potential for an infection. Dr. Robert Dimeff explains in this KERA Health Checkup.

Dr. Dimeff: In sports it’s felt to be typically a break in the skin, so you get an abrasion, a scratch, skin gets roughed up during wrestling, you know injuries on mats that sort of thing.

And then the bacteria then invade in to the skin, that’s leads to infection usually.

Baker: So it can happen with contact sports?

Dr. Dimeff: In tournaments for example, wresters, sumo wrestlers, there’ve been out breaks. It’s interesting, in football the ones that have the higher rates of infection that have been reported, at least in the NFL are the wide receivers and the defensive backs, and presumably they’re getting turf burn and that sort of thing, and blocking each other, etc. So there are certain athletes depending on the position they play, the sport they play, they will be at higher risks.

Baker: But this also happens at the college and even at the grade school level.

Dr. Dimeff: Oh absolutely, because often times the professional level, people are being looked at on a daily basis. but at the Junior High, High School level a lot of times that’s not happening especially when you've got a high school that has many thousands of students and lots of athletes, and the athletic trainers are doing their best but a lot of times these things can smolder along.

And the athlete just doesn’t think a whole lot about it until all of the sudden it becomes too significant and severe.

Baker: And that staph bacteria has to transfer somehow, so it can happen in the course of a contact sport, but it can also happen off the field as well.

Dr. Dimeff: And that is why it’s important that the environment is safe, so to speak, you know we ask athletes not to share razors, not to share bars of soap. It’s nice in the locker room, in the showers, to have liquid soap. A lot of these are antimicrobial and so by this way by using a soap dispenser you’re not handling the soap and transferring it to someone else. Not sharing towels, not sharing water bottles, using your own water bottle that has your name identified so that you’re not passing these things back and fourth. You know they’ve developed all sort of watering stations that are like big water fountains so that you don't have to make contact with the device. So that keeps you from spreading the infection. We recommend against body shaving. the problem is each time you shave you cause micro abrasions of your skin, so if you are in a sport where there is risk of contact you’re going to be at greater risk of infection whether its staph or other some other bacterial infection.

Baker: Schools are under so many guidelines to do so many things; do they have guidelines to follow? Or do they not have enough in your opinion?

Dr. Dimeff: No, they absolutely do. There are guidelines that are put up by the medical boards of each state and they specifically address this issue in terms called cleanliness in the locker room. For example there is a solution that you use to clean the mats in wrestling. The athletic trainers do a very good job in terms of surveillance and making sure the equipment is cleaned properly. The uniforms, pads, all that kind of stuff needs to be cleaned on a regular basis. For example the whirlpools, you know whirlpools feel great but you’ve got to change the water frequently.

There are all these sort of things that are guidelines, and the athletic trainers in Texas are very good, and they know these sorts of things and stay on top of it. But in spite of that there are still these issues that can occur.

Baker: So if you have guidelines in place for schools, then what is the next step?

Dr. Dimeff: Education is always the key to prevention. So that is letting the athletes know, the parents know, the coaches know, hey these are things that you need to pay attention to. Don’t ignore a little pimple that doesn’t seem like much and the next thing you know you’ve got a very severe infection. So it’s important that parents, athletes be aware that if they have a problem that they seek medical attention. Whether that's the school nurse, the athletic trainer, or the team physician if there happens to be a team physician, or their own private physician to have the issue evaluated.

Dr. Robert Dimeff is director of primary care sports medicine at U-T Southwestern and Children’s Medical Center.

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