7 Infections You Can Catch at the Gym

Washing your hands and wearing flip-flops in the shower can protect you from certain germs that thrive at the gym. 

Woman sitting down and holding a bottle of water after working out at the gym
Photo: Getty Images

Shared gym equipment, lockers, towels, showers, and pools are often breeding grounds for infections. Certain types of bacteria, viruses, and fungi thrive in dark, warm, moist environments—like the floor of communal showers, the bottom of your smelly gym bag, or the insides of your running shoes.

However, simple precautions can save you from common skin infections and other illnesses that easily spread while you sweat. Here's what you need to know about preventing common infections at the gym.

01 of 07

Staph Infection

Staphylococcus, also known as staph, is among the most common bacteria lurking in gyms. Although, most of the time, they do not cause any problems. According to the Johns Hopkins Medicine Health Library, about one-third of people carry some type of staph bacteria on their skin.

"It can be on your skin or your body, but not necessarily causing an infection," said Nirav Patel, MD, infectious disease specialist and chief medical officer of University Medical Center in New Orleans.

Staph bacteria cause problems when you have a scratch or cut on your skin. Even if it is just a small nick from shaving, the bacteria can easily enter your body, per the National Library of Medicine.

When staph bacteria cause skin infections, one of the most noticeable symptoms is red boils that appear swollen or painful. Other symptoms include drainage and a warm-to-the-touch feeling at the infection site.

Healthcare providers typically treat staph infections using antibiotics in the form of topicals or oral pills.

More often than not, staph bacteria pass from person to person. But they can also pass from surface—including gym equipment, clothing, and towels—to person.

"Make sure the equipment is in good condition," said Dr. Patel. "Anytime you see cracks or breaks in that material, bacteria can get in."

So, washing your hands or using an alcohol-based sanitizer is important. Wipe down gym equipment before and after using it, cover any cuts or sores, and do not share towels or other personal items.

02 of 07

Impetigo

Impetigo is a type of skin infection found anywhere on the body. According to the Nemours Foundation, infections typically result in sores that can ooze, burst, and form a yellow, crusty scab.

Certain types of strep and staph bacteria are the main culprits that cause those red and itchy spots. Typically, healthcare providers treat impetigo by prescribing antibiotics. You can also wash your skin using an antiseptic soap.

Like other staph infections, a cut or abrasion on the skin typically opens the door for bacteria to enter your body. You can also pick up strep or staph bacteria from touching other gym-goers or sharing their towels.

So, washing your hands frequently and keeping tabs on your towels for personal use only can help prevent impetigo.

03 of 07

Ringworm

Fungi are everywhere, including in the gym. One of the most common types of fungal infections is ringworm.

A type of fungi called dermatophytes causes ringworm and often thrives in warm, dark, moist environments. That often includes sweaty sneakers or gym locker rooms.

"Different fungi like different types of skin, just like different plants like different environments and soil," said Britt Marcussen, MD, clinical associate professor of family medicine at the Carver College of Medicine in Iowa City, Iowa.

Per the Johns Hopkins Medicine Health Library, there are several types of ringworm. Two types of ringworm to lookout for at the gym are athlete's foot and jock itch.

Athlete's foot causes white scale and itchy blisters on the feet, while jock itch causes red, painful, and itchy red-shaped blotches in the groin area.

But all types of ringworm can bring red, scaly circles anywhere on your body—including your midsection and arms and legs.

If you notice an itchy rash in one of these areas, a number of over-the-counter antifungal creams and other medicines can usually clear it up. If not, talk to your healthcare provider.

While you can contract ringworm at the gym by walking around barefoot, they are likely to come from your hygiene practices.

"It's made worse by being in sweaty shoes, using the same socks day after day, and not letting your feet dry out," noted Dr. Patel.

So, change your socks and gym clothes between workouts, and do not let them stew in your gym locker or bag. Wash your clothes frequently, allowing them to dry completely, and store them in plain sight.

04 of 07

Common Colds and Flu

Respiratory infections, like common colds and the flu, spread easily in close quarters—including in gyms.

"Any time you're gathering with a bunch of other people in a closed space, that's when you pick stuff up," noted Dr. Marcussen.

Usually, those germs enter your body through droplets from someone else's coughs and sneezes. They can even pass from surface to person, per the Johns Hopkins Medicine Health Library. Viruses can live outside of the body and on gym equipment and door handles, among other shared surfaces.

"If you grab a dumbbell that's got influenza virus on it and touch your eye or wipe your mouth, at least theoretically you can get it," said Dr. Marcussen.

The best protection is to get your yearly flu shot. Also, remember to thoroughly wash your hands or grab that alcohol-based sanitizer after leaving the gym. And continue to take precautions even if no one at the gym seems obviously ill.

"People are spreading these viruses before they even realize they're sick," warned Dr. Marcussen.

05 of 07

Plantar Warts

Plantar warts are fleshy overgrowths of skin, typically found on the soles of your feet, according to the National Library of Medicine. They are caused by human papillomavirus (HPV).

Many people contract HPV but never notice any symptoms. Although, some strains of the virus are responsible for different types of warts, as well as cervical, vulvar, penile, anal, and head and neck cancers, per the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

You can contract strains of HPV that cause plantar warts by walking around barefoot in the gym, especially in damp shower areas.

To prevent the spread of plantar warts, always wear shoes around the gym and flip-flops in the shower if you wash up after a workout.

Plantar warts do not go away on their own, so consult your healthcare provider about freezing or shaving them off.

06 of 07

Herpes

Herpes simplex viruses, known as herpes, can cause either cold sores or genital herpes. While you are less likely to catch herpes at the gym than other infections, it is important to take precautions still.

Per the National Library of Medicine, herpes enters your body if you touch an open herpes sore. That occurs typically through close, personal contact. However, the viruses can also spread through shared items, like gym equipment and towels.

Thus, the best way to prevent the spread of herpes is to avoid contact with anyone's visible cold sores. That includes not sharing drinks. And as always, wash your hands thoroughly and often, including after your workout.

07 of 07

Hot Tub Rash

If you use a pool or hot tub at the gym, there is another bug to consider: Pseudomonas aeruginosa.

According to the National Library of Medicine, the bacterium flourishes in hot tubs or pools that do not have enough disinfectant, like chlorine. It can produce an itchy, red rash and also cause swimmer's ear.

If you swim or soak at the gym, wash your swimsuit and shower (with soap) afterward. Also, contact the gym employees to confirm that they check the chlorine and pH levels at least twice a day.

Hot tub rash should go away on its own after a few days. But always see your healthcare provider about problems that persist.

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