MRSA Infections in Athletes

Treatment and Prevention of this Common Skin Infection

mrsa
MRSA infections can occur in athletes. Patrik Giardino / Getty Images

MRSA is an abbreviation for a specific type of bacteria called Methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus. MRSA is a common type of skin infection that can also cause other types of infections within the body, including in bones and joints.

MRSA is a bacteria that is particularly difficult to treat because it's resistant to common antibiotics. MRSA is a specific type of Staph (pronounced 'Staff') infection; the most common type of Staph infection is Staphalococcus aureus.

When that specific bacteria is not susceptible to a common antibiotic (or similar antibiotics), it is known as MRSA.

MRSA is becoming very common in hospitals. A few decades ago, it was a rare type of Staph. Now, in many locations, MRSA infections account for more than half of all Staph infections within a hospital, and they're becoming increasingly common outside of the hospital walls as well.

MRSA has been around hospitals for several decades, but is now becoming increasingly common in the community, in gyms and locker rooms. This type of MRSA is known as community acquired MRSA, and is abbreviated CA-MRSA. These bacteria typically cause skin infections.

Symptoms of MRSA in Athletes

Athletes exposed to MRSA may complain of redness, warmth, and pustules that form where the infection has occurred. Common symptoms of an MRSA skin infection include:

These symptoms often occur after an injury to the skin, such as a cut or abrasion.

Treatment of MRSA

Most cases of skin infections with MRSA can be managed with oral antibiotics. As mentioned, MRSA is resistant to commonly-used antibiotics, so it's important to have a physician ensure you are taking appropriate medication to treat the infection.

There are times when the infection can enter the bloodstream, or somewhere deeper within the body.

In these cases, patients may complain of generalized symptoms of infection, including fever, malaise, and weakness. In these more serious infections, intravenous antibiotics may become necessary.

In order to most effectively treat MRSA, the treatment should begin as soon as possible after identification of a possible skin infection. Waiting allows the infection to spread, and potentially to worsen. In addition, it's very important to complete the course of treatment for an MRSA infection. Often, the symptoms may improve shortly after starting antibiotic treatment, but it's important to complete the treatment to ensure eradication of the infection. If treatment is not completed, the infection may return, requiring additional time away from sports.

The good news is that MRSA, especially skin infections seen outside of hospitals, is usually very responsive to appropriate treatment. Once it's identified and treatment is started, symptoms seldom worsen or require hospitalization or surgical intervention.

That said, symptoms that worsen despite treatment require immediate ongoing evaluation by a physician.

Preventing MRSA in Athletes

Standard practices of good hygiene can help to prevent MRSA infections:
  • Wash hands and body frequently when using shared athletic equipment.
  • Clean athletic equipment when changing the user.
  • Shower immediately following athletic activity, and wash clothes after every use.
  • Avoid sharing personal items including towels, razors, etc.

Some sports are more prone to transmission of skin infections. These include person-to-person contact sports such as wrestling and football. Often, athletes will be screened prior to participation in these sports, and if they have early signs of infection, they'll be asked not to participate until the symptoms resolve.

It's important that any athlete with a suspected MRSA infection not be involved in athletics until the infection has been appropriately treated. Preventing the spread of this infection can be helped with the steps outlined above, but the most important method is avoiding skin to skin athletic contact with individuals who have an active infection.

Sources:

Marcotte AL and Trzeciak MA. "Community-acquired Methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus: An Emerging Pathogen in Orthopaedics" J Am Acad Orthop Surg February 2008 ; 16:98-106.

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