I am introducing you to the worst friend I’ve ever had: Staphylococcus aureus. More commonly known as a staph (pronounced “staff”) infection. This skin infection right below my right knee came from wrestling on unwashed mats and wearing occasionally washed gear. The infection persisted for six weeks. During those six weeks I had to shave the my leg around the infection, and apply prescribed medication twice a day. I also had to wrap the infected area in gauze and tape, and change the dressing every evening. Those six weeks were some of the least pleasant weeks of my life because I could not continue my martial arts without potentially infecting anyone I wrestled with.All because I rolled on unwashed mats and did not wash my gear regularly.
According to the California Department of Public Health staph are “bacteria carried on the skin [...] of healthy people.” However, MRSA (methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus) is staph that is resistant to most antibiotics. This type of staph infection is can lead to “longer or repeated illness, more doctor visits, and a need for more expensive and toxic antibiotics.” While MRSA was generally linked to hospitals, a different strain of MRSA has found its way into communities and is known as “community-associated” MRSA or CAMRSA. “If you are an athlete with staph infection, this is the strain you probably have” (italics mine).
MRSA looks like:
- “Sores that look and feel like spider bites”
- “Red painful bumps under the skin, called boils or abscesses”
- “A cut that is swollen, hot, and filled with pus”
- “Blisters filled with fluid [...] called impetigo”
- “A red, warm, firm skin area that is painful and getting larger, usually on the legs (called cellulitis)”
Athletes are likely to get infections near wounds and wherever their equipment touches their bodies. This is why it is a good idea to wear an undershirt underneath your chest protector. As my good friend Andy would say, “you don’t want an infection on your nipple.”
I will put this bluntly, if your equipment smells rancid it is harboring bacteria. Some players take that smell as a peculiar badge-of-honor, or good luck charm. When in fact they are repeatedly suiting up with bacteria-filled gear that are looking for a small cut to infect. Save yourself the grief and unpleasantness of a staph infection by washing your equipment in water that is as hot as the gear will allow. All of your gear except your gloves can be placed in the dryer without ill effects. Your gloves should be allowed to air dry, and if you want them to dry faster stuff them with newspaper or paper towels.
ABC News did an article in 2005 about MRSA and athletes. The article left off with good ways to combat the bacteria:
- “Don’t share towels or wipe your face with a towel you use on equipment”
- “Don’t ignore skin infections that won’t heal”
- “Shower after a workout”
- “Use liquid soap, not bars”
- “Wash your hands — well. To kill germs you must wash under nails and rub thoroughly for 20-30 seconds”
Now that I’m done scaring everybody, the rule here is pretty simple. Keep your gear and your body clean and you’ve got nothing to worry about. Most of the scary pictures you see of MRSA or regular staph infections are from individuals who did not follow the basic treatment guidelines, and allowed the infection to grow.
So don’t let your gear stew in the warm, bacteria-friendly confines of your lacrosse bag. Wash it!
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