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5 infections that you can catch doing sports

As I mentioned in my previous blog post, there are many ways that sports activities can make people catch infections, from the close living conditions and physical contacts with other people and the environment, from both living things and inanimate objects.


There are many infections that can be caught through sporting activities: bacteria, viruses, fungi and even parasites. The most common ones are easily avoidable with a basic awareness of hygiene practices such as washing hands, and are generally manageable if you catch them. There are a few, however, that  are dangerous and you should be aware of the risks and their  symptoms.

Here are some of the most common infections you can pick up.

1. Impetigo

Impetigo is a highly contagious skin infection caused mainly by the bacteria, Streptococcus pyrogens or Staphylococcus aureus. It usually begins with the appearance of red sores around the nose and mouth that burst and form crusts.

Impetigo is caught by direct contact with someone who is already infected, and by touching infected items such as towels, razors, exercise mats, sports equipment, phones. It can also be caught from a cut, insect bite or as a secondary infection with other skin diseases.

For more information on impetigo click here.


MRSA is caused by a strain of Staphylococcus aureus (staph) that is resistant to some types of antibiotics. The non-resistant strain is present in a large proportion of the population, in the nose, throat and skin and causes no or minor problems. As with impetigo, MRSA can be caught by direct contact with an infected person or from contaminated items or surfaces an infected person has touched.

For more information on MRSA click here.

3. Herpes gladiatorium

Herpes gladiatorium, or mat herpes , is caused by the herpes simplex virus type 1 (HSV-1), the same virus that causes cold sores and genital herpes. It is estimated that up to 90% of adults in the US (and probably other developed countries) have been infected at some point. Once infected it never goes away, it just lays dormant and periodically emerges and you become contagious again.

The virus causes lesions that can appear on any part of your body. These are infectious and can spread the virus to other people or anything they touch, e.g. through kissing, sharing drinks containers, eating utensils, mobile phones ”¦ and you‘ve probably guessed from the name, mats and other sports equipment.

For more information on treatment of Herpes simplex virus infections click here.

4. Ringworm

Ringworm is caused by a fungus that infects the skin or nails. The symptoms are itchy, red scaly patches in the shape of a circle. It can cause also bald patches on the scalp and discoloured, thick crumbling nails.

The ringworm fungus is spread by direct skin-to-skin contact or from contaminated items such as clothing, bedding, combs and wet floors where people walk barefoot.

For more information on treatment click here.

5. Other nasty infections

Researchers at Uppsala University Hospital compiled a list of serious diseases reported in medical literature that people caught when participating in sports activities (4), including:

  • leptospirosis in a triathlon in the USA, from contaminated water;
  • schistosomiasis in triathletes in Zimbabwe, from contaminated water;
  • rickettsiosis in runners in an adventure race in South Africa, from tick bites;
  • lLyme disease in many outdoor sports, from tick bites;
  • hepatitis B in orienteering participants in Sweden, from contaminated washing facilities;
  • meningitis traced to rugby and American football clubs, but can occur in any sport, from person-to-person transmission;
  • gastroenteritis at many events, including the Barcelona Olympic games, from contaminated food and water.

Serious cases of illnesses caught through sports

In a highly unusual case, the Daily Telegraph reported on 10 August 2016  that the police in London were investigating a possible deliberate poisoning of a junior tennis player at the 2016 Wimbledon Tennis Championships. Eighteen-year-old Gabriella Taylor became unwell while playing in the junior quarter-final. She was hospitalised and eventually diagnosed with Weill‘s disease, the virulent form of leptospirosis, which is usually caught from rat urine via hand-to-mouth infection.

In October 2010 double Olympic rowing gold medallist Andy Holmes, who partnered Sir Steve Redgrave for both medals, sadly died of suspected Weill‘s disease , which he caught while taking part in a rowing event for veterans in eastern England.

This shows how important it is for sports people to be aware of symptoms of diseases they could be exposed to.

How to prevent infections

Hand washing

The most important way to avoid infections and prevent other people catching them from you is to wash your hands with soap, according to the US CDC (6). Studies that have measured the benefits of handwashing at a community level show that it can:

  • reduce diarrheal diseases by 31%;
  • reduce respiratory illnesses such as colds by 16-21%.

Here are some tips, based on scientific research, on how to clean your hands properly.

Soap and water

To remove dirt and reduce the quantity of bacteria, viruses, and other germs effectively from all parts of your hands, you should wash your hands properly, using soap and water, then drying your hands thoroughly.

  • Wet your hands with clean, running water and apply soap.
  • Rub your hands together to make lather, then rub the back of your hands, between your fingers, the ends of all fingers and thumbs, and under your nails.
  • Continue rubbing hands for 20 seconds as this removes more bugs.
  • Rinse your hands well with clean running water. Rubbing your hands while rinsing also removes more bugs.
  • Dry your hands using a disposable paper towel or an air dryer.

Hand sanitiser

When soap and water are not available, an alcohol-based hand sanitiser is an effective alternative for preventing infections. It was even one of the measures introduced to the British Cycling team by Sir Dave Brailsford, when he was Performance Director of British Cycling (2003-14), in implementing his concept of marginal gains.

Hand sanitisers are also suitable in situations where frequent contact with water damages the skin. However, they are not suitable for every situation:

  • A hand sanitiser should have at least 60% alcohol content to be effective at killing germs.
  • You need to use sufficient quantity to cover your hands for the gel to be effective.
  • Some bacteria and viruses are resistant to sanitisers, including Cryptosporidium, Clostridium difficile and norovirus.
  • Hand sanitiser gels do not remove dirt and grease, so may not work well if your hands are visibly dirty.

Basic hygiene practices

The IAAF Medical Manual for Athletes and the New York State Department of Health give some general advice for athletes to avoid getting infections during training and competitions (4, 5). Here are some of the suggestions ”” once you‘ve read a few you should get a general idea!

  • Bathe regularly, using soap and dry your skin thoroughly afterwards.
  • Wash and change your clothes regularly.
  • Avoid sick people, animals, and “contagious objects”, as the IAAF manual calls them.  For respiratory tract infections such as coughs, colds, and sore throats,.Also keep away from other people who are coughing and sneezing or have a runny nose to prevent inhalation of airborne particles.
  • Avoid touching your own eyes, mouth or nose if you have an infection yourself so you don‘t contaminate things other people will touch.
  • Do not pick at skin sores, which can worsen the infection and contaminate your hands.
  • Dress sores, infections, wounds, and lesions with appropriate medical gauzes, plasters, etc, both to protect them from other infections and prevent you from infecting others.
  • Wash hands after using shared equipment.
  • Do not share personal items, including towel, soaps, razors, deodorants, drinks bottles and cans, etc.
  • Regularly wash and disinfect shared sports equipment.
  • Use a clean towel to cover shared surfaces such as therapy tables.
  • Do not use shared facilities such as saunas, whirlpools, ice baths etc if you have wounds, lesions or infections.

Food safety

Food and water-borne diseases are more common in places where standards of food safety and hygiene  are not great. There are many types of bacteria, viruses, and protozoa that can contaminate food and drink and cause diarrhoea and other medical problems. You should eat only wholesome food that is freshly cooked under hygienic conditions and only drink bottled water, other bottled or canned drinks, or boiled water.

But don‘t let all that put you off sports. The only serious skin infections I‘ve had from sports activities in the last few decades were from cuts that went septic ”” one from crashing on a bike at the bottom of a steep hill in Donegal, and the other caused by running into a clay plant pot in a garden. I didn‘t think at the time to wash them clean, though.


  1. Nieman, DC. 2000. Exercise effects on systemic immunity. Immunology and Cell Biology (2000) 78, 496-501; doi:10.1111/j.1440-1711.2000.t01-5-.x.
  2. Gleeson M, Bishop NC. Modification of immune responses to exercise by carbohydrate, glutamine, and anti-oxidant supplements. Immunology and Cell Biology (2000) 78, 554-561; doi:10.1111/j.1440-1711.2000.t01-6-.x
  3. Friman G, Wesslén L. 2000. Infections and exercise in high-performance athletes. Immunology and Cell Biology 78, 510-522; doi:10.1111/j.1440-1711.2000.t01-12-.x
  4. IAAF. 2012. Medical Manual.
  5. New York State Department of Health. Skin infections in athletes. (accessed August 2016
  6. CDC. Handwashing. Clean Hands Save Lives. (accessed August 2016)

Discover the 7 most common ways infections are spread in sports

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