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Grappling with staph infection.

Grappling sports--e.g., jiu jitsu, judo, submission wrestling, mixed martial arts--are a popular training activity for millions of people. They deliver an incredible, full-body workout, have a long and rich tradition across many cultures worldwide, and can be as rewarding as they are challenging, as fun as they are competitive.

Because these sports tend to focus on ground fighting and complex body holds, including joint locks, chokes and throws, skin-to-skin contact is nearly constant for the duration of a workout. Add to this the often high-temperature environment of a gymnasium and you get a very effective recipe for breeding and transferring staph infection.

Staphylococcus aureus, or staph infection, is a bacterium that many healthy people carry around on their skin without being infected by it at all. But when staph gets into the body through a cut or other opening, it can cause an infection. Sometimes this is only a mild annoyance, but it can be quite serious: staph infections can range from minor skin problems all the way to endocarditis, a life-threatening infection of the inner lining of your heart that is precisely as disturbing as it sounds.

Skin infections caused by staph bacteria include boils, contagious rash and cellulitis (an infection commonly seen on the lower legs and feet).

If staph infection from a wound moves into the bloodstream, a very serious condition known as bacteremia results. Another type of blood poisoning sometimes caused by staph is sepsis, which, like bacteremia, affects the entire body. Staph can also invade the muscles, lungs, bones and joints. Toxic shock syndrome and septic arthritis can also be caused by staph.

Still, staph is one of the most common causes of skin infections in the U.S. Usually these infections are minor and don't need special treatment. Many others are easily handled with a course of antibiotics. However, there are now strains of staph that have emerged completely resistant to antibiotics. All such strains, the first of which was discovered all the way back in the 1960s, are referred to generally as MRSA. The acronym stands for methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus, a group of strains that resist methicillin, amoxicillin, penicillin, oxacillin and many other common antibiotics.

Like most staph infections, MRSA infections aren't usually serious, though some can be life-threatening. Of course, many public health experts are alarmed by the spread of MRSA strains because they are so hard to treat. For this reason MRSA is sometimes called a superbug.

Because staph can be abundant in areas where there are many humans in close quarters--e.g., prisons, the military, health clubs, daycare centers, and, of course, the grappling mat at your local gym--there is even a name for when antibiotic-resistant strains of staph appear in healthy people who have not been hospitalized: community-associated MRSA (CA-MRSA).

Compounding the trouble is the fact that staph, whether antibiotic-resistant or not, is very hardy. Staph bacteria are able to survive drying, extremes of temperature and even high levels of salt.


Be sure to take the following steps regularly to prevent staph from spreading at your local grappling club or other group workout place:

Disinfect surfaces. Since staph lives on inanimate objects, including gym towels and equipment, to minimize the risk of all types of staph infection generally, it's very important to regularly swab not only workout surfaces but also adjoining locker rooms with antibacterial spray. The label on the can should tell you whether it kills Staphylococcus aureus (often listed as "S. aureus").

Wash hands. Careful hand-washing is your best defense against all germs, from flu virus to staph infection. Wash your hands briskly for at least 15 to 30 seconds, then dry them with a disposable towel and use another towel to turn off the faucet. If your hands aren't visibly dirty, you can instead use a hand sanitizer containing at least 62% alcohol.

Cover wounds. Keep cuts and abrasions clean and covered with sterile, dry bandages until they heal. The pus from infected sores often contains staph bacteria, and keeping wounds covered will help keep the bacteria from spreading.

Don't share. Avoid sharing personal items such as towels, sheets, razors, clothing and athletic equipment. Remember, staph infections can spread on objects, as well as from person to person.

Wash clothing and bedding. Staph bacteria can survive on towels, clothing and bedding that isn't properly washed. To get bacteria off clothing and sheets, wash them in hot water whenever possible. Also, use bleach on any bleach-safe materials. Drying in the dryer is better than air-drying, but staph bacteria may survive the clothes dryer.


See a doctor if you develop an area of red, irritated or painful skin, pus-filled blisters or fever. Take yourself out of training immediately until you get a checkup. If skin infections are being passed between two or more members of, say, your jiu jitsu squad, you should probably go to the doctor yourself, even if you are symptomless.

Treatment usually involves antibiotics and drainage of the infected area. Your doctor may perform tests to identify what type of staph bacteria is behind your infection, and to help choose the antibiotic that will work best. The Mayo Clinic lists the following as commonly prescribed antibiotics to treat staph infection: certain cephalosporins, nafcillin or related antibiotics, sulfa drugs or vancomycin.

The clinic points out that vancomycin is increasingly required to treat serious staph infections because so many strains of staph bacteria have become resistant to other traditional medicines. But vancomycin has to be given intravenously, and it has more side effects associated with it.

Remember too that if you're given an oral antibiotic, you need to finish all of the medication as prescribed by your doctor. Ask your doctor what signs and symptoms you should watch for that might indicate your infection is worsening.

Jiu-Jitsu Magazine, Dec. 2015, MRSA On and Off the Mat,

Breaking Muscle, Skin Infections--A Look at the Glamorous Side of Grappling, grappling

Medline Plus, Staphylococcal Infections,

Mayo Clinic, Staph Infections, 20031418
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Publication:Running & FitNews
Date:Jul 1, 2016
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