Warmups, cool downs, hydration and safety gear—organized sports are often set up to keep your young athlete safe. But have you talked to your child about avoiding germs? Children who participate in organized sports may be exposed to diseases caused by infection. According to Dr. Coburn Allen, an infectious disease specialist at Dell Children’s Medical Center of Central Texas, most of these infections are viral, such as flu, stomach virus or pinkeye. But bacterial and fungal skin infections can be problems as well.
Viral, Bacterial and Fungal Infections
“Honestly,” says Dr. Allen, “shared viral infections are quite common, especially in situations where people are in close contact. There have been outbreaks of diseases like viral meningitis from athletes sharing cups or ladles. Skin infections caused by bacteria and fungus seem to be more specific to athletes.”
Skin infections are spread by skin–to–skin contact or by touching a contaminated surface. Dr. Allen says, “Boils and impetigo are common types of staph infections. Other unique skin infections are herpes and pinkeye. Athletes’ foot and other fungal infections of the skin are often seen in athletes.” According to a recent survey, wrestling is the sport with the highest number of skin infections, followed by football. However, any athlete is at risk for a skin infection when sharing equipment, clothes or towels that have not been properly cleaned first.
Some infections can be serious. “We don’t see a lot of life–threatening infections linked to athletic teams,” says Dr. Allen, “but certainly bacterial meningitis within a team might lead to many members of that team receiving treatment to prevent an outbreak, something we have been very successful doing in the US. Although rare, a germ from a staph infection can get into the blood stream and cause a child to become very sick rapidly. A child with a rash and fever should get medical care right away. Any young athlete who has altered mental status, confusion or seizures should get urgent medical care.”
“Most of these infections can be prevented or at least decreased in frequency by practicing good personal hygiene and by not sharing towels or equipment that hasn’t been cleaned,” advises Dr. Allen. “Also, make sure your child understands not to share drinking cups, ladles or bottles.” (See sidebars below for details.)
Dr. Allen cautions, “It is crucial to avoid presenteeism—the concept that athletes should come to practices, competitions or games even though they are sick or have skin infections that are draining. Athletes who do this expose teammates to infection by not staying home and getting treatment or by not adequately covering their infections. Teams need to have policies that discourage these behaviors. Teams also need to have policies that encourage coaches or others to actively look for infections and address them early and extensively.” Several professional athletic associations, including the National Federation of State High School Associations, have published guidelines for diagnosis, treatment, and return of infected players to team participation.
“Parents should monitor their young athlete for boils and spreading patches of abnormal skin or sores. Alert coaches and others if several team members develop the same signs and symptoms at the same time,” recommends Dr. Allen.
Steps for Preventing Infection in Young Athletes
Practice Good Hygiene
- Clean hands often with soap and water or hand sanitizer. See “How to Wash Your Hands.” p. 19
- Wash hands before and after playing sports, before and after using shared training gear and after using the toilet.
- Shower immediately after practices, competitions and games.
- Wash uniforms and practice clothes after each use. Wear clean clothes and socks.
Don’t Share These Items
- Don’t share hygiene items, such as bars of soap, sponges or razors.
- Don’t share towels.
- Don’t use a shared ointment that players get by scooping it out with their hands.
- Don’t share water bottles or cups. Don’t drink from a common cupor ladle.
- Don’t share mouth guards, braces, helmets or personal protective equipment.
Don’t Spread Infection
- Don’t participate when you’re sick or have an uncovered skin infection that is draining.
- Report abrasions, cuts and skin lesions to an appropriate person for evaluation, cleaning, treatment and bandaging based on your team’s policies.
- Stay up to date on immunizations, including the flu vaccine.
How to Wash Your Hands
- Wet your hands with clean, running water. Turn off the tap.
- Apply soap. Liquid soap is better than bar soap at minimizing the spread of germs.
- Lather your hands by rubbing them together. Be sure to lather the backs of your hands, between your fingers and under your nails.
- Scrub for at least 20 seconds. Need a timer? Hum the “Happy Birthday” song twice.
- Rinse your hands well under clean, running water.
- Dry your hands with a clean towel or air dry them.
By Brenda Schoolfirld a freelance medical writer who splits her time between Austin and Seattle.