So you’ve made your New Year’s resolution to join the gym, get buff, and enjoy all the perks of a trim, svelte you. Just make sure your best intentions don’t backfire in the form of a nasty skin or respiratory infection. They’re rare–luckily–but gym infections can and do happen.
But don’t let thoughts of gross gym germs stop you from going. “It’s important to exercise,” says Nirav Patel, MD, assistant professor of infectious diseases at Saint Louis University. “[Infections are] something you want to keep in the back of your mind.”
Knowing what problems are out there can help you avoid them. Keep up with your fitness resolution–but follow some simple safety tips.
Staphylococcus bacteria are among the most common germs lurking in gyms. They’re also potentially the most serious. Most of the time, though, they don’t cause problems. In fact, about one-third of people, gym-goers or not, carry some type of staph on their skin.
“It can be on your skin or your body, but not necessarily causing an infection,” says Dr. Patel, who is also chief medical officer of SSM Health Saint Louis University Hospital. Staph infections occur only when you have a scratch or cut in your skin–even if it’s just a nick from shaving–and the bacteria crawl through. The most serious form, methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus (MRSA), isn’t usually found in gyms.
More often than not, staph bacteria are passed from person to person, not surface to person. That means you need to worry more if you’re participating in contact sports, not individualized workouts. Still, wash your hands or use an alcohol-based sanitizer frequently. Wipe down gym equipment before and after using it, cover any cuts or sores, and don’t share towels or other personal items.
Staph infections most commonly cause boils. If you have skin symptoms that don't go away, see your doctor.
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Fungi are everywhere, including at the gym. The best-known infection-causing examples are probably athlete’s foot and jock itch. Both are caused by the type of fungi that thrive in warm, dark, moist environments–like your sweaty sneakers or gym locker rooms. Not only can the feet and groin be affected, but also armpits and, for women, under the breasts.
While you can pick up fungal infections at the gym by walking barefoot, they’re more likely to come from your own hygiene practices, Dr. Patel says. “It’s made worse by being in sweaty shoes, using the same socks day after day, and not letting your feet dry out.”
At least that makes the solution pretty obvious: Change your socks and gym clothes between workouts, and don’t let them stew in your locker or gym bag. Wash your clothes frequently, then air them out and store them in plain sight, not in a musty closet or bag.
If you do get an itchy rash in one of these areas, a number of over-the-counter antifungal products can usually clear it up within a few weeks. If not, talk to your doctor.
Ringworm is another fungal infection you might encounter at the gym, and one that can occur pretty much anywhere on your body, including your midsection and your arms and legs.
“Different funguses like different types of skin, just like different plants like different environments and soil,” says Britt Marcussen, MD, clinical associate professor of family medicine at the University of Iowa Carver College of Medicine in Iowa City.
True to the name, ringworm appears as scaly circles on your skin.
Avoid the infection in much the same way you would avoid athlete’s foot: Wear flip flops around the gym locker room, wash and dry sweaty clothes and socks, and air out damp shoes. Antifungal shampoos can also help keep infections off your scalp.
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Colds and flu
Respiratory infections spread easily in any kind of close quarters, including gyms. “Any time you’re gathering with a bunch of other people in a closed space, that’s when you pick stuff up,” says Dr. Marcussen.
Usually these viruses are transmitted through droplets from someone else’s coughs and sneezes, and most can live a little while outside the body. “If you grab a dumbbell that’s got influenza virus on it and touch your eye or wipe your mouth, at least theoretically you can get it,” Dr. Marcussen says.
The best protection: Get your flu shot. Wash your hands or grab that alcohol-based sanitizer after leaving the gym once your workout is finished. And take precautions even if no one seems outwardly ill. “People are spreading these viruses before they even realize they’re sick,” Dr. Marcussen says.
Plantar warts are caused by a strain of human papillomavirus (HPV). Lots of people have HPV but never know it, although some forms can cause cervical cancer, genital warts, and more. You can pick up the type that causes plantar warts by walking barefoot in the gym, especially in damp shower areas.
To prevent the spread of plantar warts, always wear shoes around the gym and flip flops in the shower if you wash up after a workout.
Luckily, many plantar warts go away on their own. But because they grow inward, they can hurt. If you have a painful plantar wart–or one that causes any other problems–talk to your doctor about freezing or shaving it off.
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Impetigo results in skin sores that can ooze, burst, and crust over. It can be caused by staph or strep bacteria, which often lay innocently on the skin, causing no problems at all. A cut or abrasion opens a door into your body, leading to symptoms. You can also pick up strep or staph bacteria from touching other gym-goers or sharing towels.
Prevent impetigo by washing your hands frequently and keeping tabs on your towel for personal use only.
Talk to your doctor if you have red, pus-filled sores. Impetigo can be treated with antibiotic ointments or oral antibiotics.
The herpes virus can cause cold sores and genital warts, and while it’s not common to pick it up at the gym, it could happen. Herpes typically has to enter through a cut or sore to cause the trademark lip blisters (and sometimes flu- and cold-like symptoms), and it’s more likely to be spread from person to person than from gym equipment. In fact, herpes simplex virus type 1 (HSV-1) has been documented spreading among wrestlers and rugby players.
The best way to prevent the spread of herpes is to avoid contact with anyone’s visible cold sores. That includes not sharing drinks. And as always, wash your hands well and often, including after finishing your workout.
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If use a pool or hot tub at the gym, there’s another bug to think about: Psuedomonas aeruginosa. This bacterium flourishes in hot tubs or pools that don’t have enough disinfectant (like chlorine). It can produce an itchy, red rash and also cause swimmer’s ear.
If you swim or soak at the gym, wash your swimsuit and shower–with soap!–afterward. Touch base with gym employees to confirm that chlorine and pH levels are checked at least twice a day.
Hot-tub rash should go away in a few days on its own. Always see your doctor about problems that persist.
In general, gym germs aren’t something to get overly concerned about. The benefit of exercise far outweighs the risk they pose. Besides, most can be prevented by the same simple protocols. “Routine precautions are really the best,” says Infectious Diseases Society of America spokesperson Aaron Glatt, MD, chairman of medicine and epidemiologist at South Nassau Communities Hospital in Hewlett, New York.
That means limiting person-to-person contact, wiping down equipment before and after you use it, always wearing shoes and flip flops, and washing your hands or using hand sanitizer–every time you go to the gym.
It also can’t hurt to check around to make sure the gym is well maintained every once in a while. “Make sure the equipment is in good condition,” says Dr. Patel. And not just weights and treadmills, but benches too, he says. "Anytime you see cracks or breaks in that material, bacteria can get in. If equipment looks old and worn out, you worry [the gym] probably isn’t maintained in other ways.”