Skin

Updated 17 November 2017

Gross fungal infections you can pick up at the gym

You go to gym to exercise. But make sure the only thing you pick up is a dumbbell and not one of these gross fungal infections.

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Gyms are pretty gross places, especially if you're a germophobe – people sweat and equipment probably doesn’t get cleaned as often as it should.

What is even grosser is that you are at risk of picking up a fungal infection.

Here are four fungal infections you could contract at the gym. 

1. MRSA

What is it? Methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus (MRSA) is a bacterium that causes infections. 
Symptoms: If you’ve picked up a staph skin infection, according to the New York Times health guide, you’ll notice a red, swollen and painful area that sometimes looks like a boil on your skin. Severe symptoms include chest pain, fever, headache, rash and wounds that do not heal.
How do you get it? You can pick up a staph infection if you have an open cut or sore, and come into contact with the bacteria. Most staph infections are spread through touch.
How do you treat it?
Your doctor will need to drain the area. Do not attempt to do this yourself – you may make it worse, and severe MRSA infections are becoming increasingly difficult to treat. You may also need to take antibiotics. 

2. Athlete’s foot

What is it? Athlete’s foot refers to a number of common fungal infections of the feet. It also goes by the name of tinea pedis or ringworm of the foot, and usually affects the spaces between the toes. 
Symptoms: There are three typical presentations of athlete’s foot. It can appear interdigitally, when there's moist, pink, flaking skin between the toes. Vesiculo-pustular presents with small blisters on the arch of the foot. The third is dry and scaly type – it appears as dry skin that covers the surface of the foot. 
How do you get it? Fungi that cause athlete’s foot thrive in warm, moist areas, and infections are contagious. You can pick it up by walking barefoot in bathrooms or around a pool.
How do you treat it? 
You can treat athlete’s foot with over-the-counter medication. If you neglect to treat the infection for long enough or ignore re-infection, you will struggle to get rid of athlete’s foot. In severe cases, you should see your doctor.

3. Plantar warts

What is it? Plantar warts are caused by the human papilloma viruses (HPV), which can infect the skin through small cuts or scrapes. 
Symptoms: Plantar warts appear as small, bumpy growths on the soles of the feet. They can measure up to 5cm and sometimes have small black spots on the surface. They can cause pain when standing or walking. 
How do you get it? There are more than 60 types of HPV – types 1, 2, 4 and 7 are associated with plantar warts. It may take a few months from your initial exposure until you start to notice warts. Plantar warts are contagious and are easily spread at public swimming pools or in showers. Your body can develop immunity against these viruses, however, so plantar warts are more common in children. 
How do you treat it? You must see a doctor for treatment, who will freeze the warts off. If the warts are really large, you may have to have them surgically removed under local anaesthetic. 

4. Folliculitis

What is it? It’s a bacterial infection of the hair follicles
Symptoms: Bacteria get into the pores of your hair follicles and cause an itchy red rash with pustules.
How do you get it? It’s caused by the bacterium Staphylococcus aureus, which thrives in warm water. You can pick it up in the gym pool if it’s poorly maintained or not properly chlorinated. 
How do you treat it? Your doctor may prescribe oral or topical antibiotics to treat the infection. See your doctor if you notice an irritation of the skin around hair follicles which have become inflamed. 

fungal infection factoid

Protect yourself

You don’t want to stop going to the gym in case you pick up an infection. Here are ways to protect yourself from picking up a fungal infection at the gym:

  • Always wear shoes in public areas – in the shower, locker room and around the swimming pool.
  • Put a plaster on any open cut, scrape or sore.
  • Clean gym equipment before (and after) you use it.
  • Wash your hands when you’ve finished your workout.
  • Wash your clothes and towel as soon as you get home. And shower as soon as you can – either at the gym straight after your workout, or as soon as you get home. 
  • Don’t ignore any symptoms – see your doctor if you notice any scratch or cut becoming red or tender. 


Image credits: iStock 

 

Ask the Expert

Skin expert

Dr Suretha Kannenberg holds a degree in Medicine and a Masters in Dermatology from the University of Stellenbosch. She is employed as a consultant dermatologist by Stellenbosch University and Tygerberg Academic Hospital, where she is involved in clinical duties and the training of medical students and dermatology residents. Her areas of interest and research include vitiligo, eczema and acne. She also performs limited private practice work in the Northern suburbs of Cape Town in general and cosmetic dermatology.

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