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7 reasons sports people are at risk of infections

This summer of sport has highlighted the importance of marginal gains to elite athletes with hundredths of a second making the difference between winning and losing.

Ensuring the athletes are physically 100% is, of course, the key to success. There are, however, a number of infections that people taking part in sports are more likely to contract from their activities. High-intensity activity, competing in close contact with others, using equipment and ”˜interacting‘ with the great outdoors can expose you to a range of unwelcome germs. These can impair performance or even require isolation to prevent you spreading infections to others.

At the Olympics, the athletes are very well looked after by highly trained teams, but there is not the same level of expertise at small sports clubs, schools, and gyms, so the risk of infections is higher. As you will see later, however, there is one simple precaution everyone can take to reduce the chance of getting infections: washing, especially your hands.

First, though, here are 7 reasons why sports can result in infections if you don‘t take suitable precautions.

1. Sweaty bodies

As everyone knows, exertion produces body heat and sweat, which creates ideal conditions on the skin for many microorganisms to thrive. Infections are more likely to take hold when warm, moist conditions are maintained over prolonged periods, especially in covered areas of the body, such as the feet.

Someone  running

2. Shared facilities

Sports people are often in close contact with each other, sharing facilities such as changing rooms, showers, toilets, sports equipment and even personal items. This increases the chance of transferring something harmful from one person to another through direct contact, touching contaminated surfaces or breathing airborne microorganisms from coughing and sneezing.

3. Contact is part of the game

There are contact sports such as boxing, rugby, wrestling and judo where body contact is an intrinsic part of the game, and sports such as basketball, hockey, and football where a lot of contact happens. Skin-to-skin contact is an efficient way to transfer infections between athletes.

People playing rugby

4. Cut skin

Contacts with people, equipment, and the ground can damage the skin through cuts and abrasions, giving easy access for germs to enter and take hold. For several leading cyclists in the Rio 2016 Olympic road races, it was the road, a post, and drains they came into contact with”” Annemiek van Vleuten, Vincenzo Nibali, Sergio Henao, Richie Porte and Geraint Thomas all crashed on a steep downhill section of the course which caused them to have open wounds.

5. Shared equipment

Then there are sports where athletes use the same equipment such as tumbling mats, foam cushioning, parallel bars, benches, and rings, where infections can be transferred on the equipment from hands and perspiring bodies.

Gymnastics rings

6. Polluted water

Athletes taking part in outdoor water sports come into contact with whatever is in the water. Even washing facilities can be a source of infection if the water is contaminated and especially when people have cuts and abrasions.

At Rio 2016 the water sports athletes have been warned that the waters are polluted and to wash as soon as possible after being in the water. Developing the sewerage systems to clean up the polluted waters was one of the infrastructure projects that the city of Rio de Janeiro didn‘t complete in time!

In the rowing events, the strong winds in the Rodrigo de Freitas lagoon caused Serbia‘s Milos Vasic and Nenad Bedik to capsize during the heats of the men‘s coxless pairs (they were given a pass to continue to the repêchage event and won 4th place in Final B).

Then, Kazakhstan‘s Vladislav Yakovlev capsized in the heats for the men‘s single skulls. For Yakovlev, this occurred after only 10 strokes ”” an Olympic record ”” and then he capsized again on the following day in the repêchage! There was no report that they came down with any illness from the water, however, so they are likely to be OK.

7. Impaired immune system

You might think that being very fit makes you healthier, but it gives no protection against infections, especially viruses. In fact, prolonged heavy exercise compromises the immune system and leaves an ”˜open window‘ of 3 to 72 hours, depending how the immune system is measured when it is in a weakened state.

Different parts of the immune system are then more open to infection from viruses and bacteria e.g. skin, lung, upper respiratory tract, blood, and muscle (1).

According to sports scientists at the University of Birmingham, hard exercise over long periods causes many hormonal and biochemical changes that affect your immune system. Poor nutrition also damages it, so a well-balanced diet, with enough carbohydrates to provide energy needs, protein, and certain micronutrients, helps maintain its effectiveness. There is no evidence, however, that taking antioxidants or amino acids has any benefits (2).

Cells of the immune system have a very high metabolic rate and consequently need adequate glucose to function properly. Taking carbohydrate before and during intense activity helps these cells function. It also helps to maintain saliva flow ”” which is suppressed during heavy exercise by restriction of the saliva glands, which in turn restricts the level of antibacterial proteins that are present in saliva. These help prevent upper respiratory tract infections (3).

Find out about Initial‘s solution for helping businesses to maintain hand hygiene.

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  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. (accessed August 2016)
  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 (accessed August 2016)
  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 (accessed August 2016)

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