MRSA: Protecting student athletes

By Mayo Clinic Staff

Methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus — or MRSA — is a type of highly drug-resistant bacteria that has been a problem in hospital and health care settings for decades. More recently, MRSA has become a problem among otherwise healthy student athletes. Is your child at risk? What can you do to protect against MRSA infection?

What is MRSA?

MRSA is a type of staph bacteria that has become resistant to the effects of many common antibiotics. This means that the antibiotics that used to kill the bacteria — such as methicillin — no longer work. This makes MRSA infections much more difficult to treat.

MRSA first surfaced in hospitals, where it often caused serious bloodstream infections in people who were sick with other diseases and conditions. Now there are varieties of MRSA that occur in nonhospital settings. These infections typically affect the skin of otherwise healthy individuals — such as student athletes.

What does an MRSA infection look like?

An MRSA skin infection looks like a boil, pimple or spider bite that may be:

  • Red
  • Swollen
  • Painful
  • Warm to the touch
  • Full of pus or fluid
  • Accompanied by a fever

These infections most commonly occur at sites where the skin has been broken by cuts or scrapes, or on areas of the skin covered by hair, such as the:

  • Back of the neck
  • Groin
  • Buttock
  • Armpit
  • Face

How does MRSA spread?

MRSA is spread by:

  • Skin-to-skin contact. MRSA can be transmitted from one person to another through skin-to-skin contact. While MRSA skin infections can occur in participants of many types of sports, they're much more likely to occur in contact sports — such as football, wrestling and rugby.
  • Touching contaminated objects. If drainage from an MRSA skin infection comes into contact with an object — such as a towel, weight training equipment or a shared jar of ointment — the next person who touches that object may become infected with MRSA bacteria.

What can schools do to prevent MRSA infections?

Athletic equipment and locker rooms should be regularly cleaned and disinfected. There's no evidence that spraying or fogging rooms or surfaces with disinfectant works any better than just focusing on frequently touched surfaces — such as wrestling mats, weight training equipment and locker room benches.

Schools, coaches and trainers can also:

  • Educate student athletes about how to prevent skin infections such as MRSA
  • Encourage student athletes to practice good hygiene
  • Encourage student athletes to report any suspicious skin infections to the coach
  • Refer student athletes who have a suspicious skin infection to a doctor

What can athletes do to prevent MRSA infections?

To help prevent the spread of MRSA infections:

  • Wash your hands. Use soap and water or an alcohol-based sanitizer. Clean your hands before and after playing sports, using shared weight training equipment, and changing a bandage on a wound.
  • Take showers. Shower immediately after exercise. Don't share items that touch your bare skin — such as bar soap, razors or towels.
  • Use barriers. Cover cuts and scrapes with a bandage to keep germs out. Lay a towel down to act as a barrier between your skin and benches in weight rooms, locker rooms, saunas and steam rooms.
  • Wash your clothing and equipment. Follow the laundering directions for your workout clothing, uniform and equipment. Dry clothes completely in a dryer. Wash your workout clothing and uniform after each use.

If you have a skin infection, what should you do?

Cover the infected area with a clean, dry bandage. Then, go see your doctor. Don't try to treat a skin infection yourself.

It's hard to tell the difference between a skin infection caused by MRSA and a skin infection caused by another type of bacteria. Your doctor can order laboratory tests to determine what kind of bacterial infection you have.

How are MRSA skin infections treated?

Minor MRSA skin infections usually heal after being drained by your doctor. If the infection doesn't heal well or gets worse, your doctor may prescribe antibiotics that are still effective against MRSA. If the infection is severe, you may need to be hospitalized. In rare cases, MRSA infections can become life-threatening.

While your skin infection is healing, keep it covered with a clean, dry bandage at all times. To avoid spreading MRSA to others, wash your hands often, especially after changing your bandage or touching the infection. Don't share clothing, towels or hygiene products with anyone else. Don't use whirlpools, therapy pools or swimming pools until the infection has healed completely.

When can the athlete return to play?

The National Athletic Trainers' Association recommends that skin infections be tested for MRSA, and that an athlete who has MRSA should not be allowed to return to play until:

  • The athlete has taken an appropriate antibiotic for at least 72 hours
  • Drainage from the wound has stopped
  • No new lesions have developed in the past 48 hours

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March 16, 2021 See more In-depth