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
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Different parts of a gym, like shared gym equipment and pools, are often breeding grounds for infections. However, simple actions 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.

What Causes Infections to Spread in Gyms?

Some infections can be spread by contact, leading to skin infections. This is because certain types of bacteria, viruses, and fungi thrive in warm, moist environments around the gym. Those places are areas like:

  • Floors of community showers
  • Bottoms of smelly gym bags
  • Insides of running shoes

In some cases, infections that spread through the air can also occur. Researchers investigated the risk of infections for individuals exercising at a gym. They found that infections could spread more through the air when there are higher carbon dioxide levels—when more people were in the gym.

Skin Infections at the Gym

Research has found that bacteria leading to potential skin infections and illnesses were on 10% to 30% of gym surfaces. Several types of skin infections can spread at the gym. You can get them from touching any surface, including equipment, gym mats, and the floor.

Plantar Warts

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

Many people contract HPV but never notice any symptoms. Some virus strains are responsible for different types of warts, as well as cancers, including cervical, penile, or head and neck cancers.

You can end up with strains of HPV that cause plantar warts by walking around barefoot in the gym, especially in damp shower areas. Keep your shoes around the gym to prevent the spread of plantar warts. You'll also want to:

  • Wear flip-flops in the shower, locker, and pool areas
  • Keep any warts on your foot dry
  • Avoid touching, scratching, or picking at warts

Plantar warts do not go away on their own and are hard to treat. Consult a healthcare provider about treatment options as well as if you:

  • Are unsure if a skin growth is a wart or what home treatments can be used
  • Have further signs of skin infection (e.g., redness, pain)
  • Have a bleeding wart or one that is growing fast
  • See no improvement in treating the wart

Impetigo

Impetigo is a type of skin infection found anywhere on the body. 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. 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.

If you have any symptoms of impetigo, seek medical care. Typically, healthcare providers treat impetigo by prescribing antibiotics or antibacterial creams. You can also wash your skin using an antiseptic soap. You can also prevent impetigo from spreading by:

  • Washing (but not scrubbing) your hands frequently
  • Using a clean washcloth and towel (if you have an active infection)
  • Avoiding any oozing blisters
  • Not sharing any towels or other personal items

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.

Types of ringworm you could likely find at the gym would be athlete's foot and jock itch. Athletes' 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, arms, and legs. And while you can contract ringworm at the gym by walking around barefoot, they are likely to come from how well people do things to stay clean.

"[Ringworm]'s made worse by being in sweaty shoes, using the same socks day after day, and not letting your feet dry out," Nirav Patel, MD, infectious disease specialist, and chief medical officer of University Medical Center in New Orleans, told Health.

Preventing ringworm involves the following:

  • Changing your socks and clothes (including gym clothes)
  • Using your towels or other personal items
  • Showering after workouts and wearing shower shoes in gym common areas
  • Disinfecting or throwing out the affected items

It's also a good idea to wash your clothes frequently, allow them to dry completely, and store them in plain sight.

Several over-the-counter antifungal creams and other medicines can usually clear it up if you notice an itchy rash in one of these areas. You'll want to keep any dermatology follow-up visits for treatment since ringworm can come back. But tell a dermatologist if any treatment for ringworm fails.

Hot Tub Rash

If you use a pool or hot tub at the gym, there is another bug to consider: Pseudomonas aeruginosa. The bacterium flourishes in hot tubs or pools that do not have enough disinfectant, like chlorine. It can produce an itchy, red rash and cause a swimmer's ear.

Additionally, the rash can appear anywhere between a few hours to a few days, mainly around the stomach area.

If you swim or soak at the gym, wash your swimsuit and shower (with soap) afterward to reduce the risk of getting this type of rash. Also, you might consider contacting staff 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 see a dermatologist if you have symptoms of the condition or problems that persist, like getting the rash more than once.

Staph Infections

Staphylococcus, also known as staph, can be one of the types of bacteria lurking in gyms. But, most of the time, these bacteria do not cause any problems. "It can be on your skin or body, but not necessarily causing an infection," said Dr. Patel.

Staph bacteria cause problems when you have a scratch or cut on your skin. This is because the bacteria can easily enter your body, even if it is just a tiny nick from shaving.

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 site of the infection.

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—as well as during contact sports.

One way to prevent the spread of this kind of bacteria? "Make sure the equipment is in good condition," said Dr. Patel. "Anytime you see cracks or breaks in that material, bacteria can get in." Other methods of prevention entail:

  • Wiping down gym equipment before and after using it
  • Washing your hands or using an alcohol-based sanitizer
  • Covering any cuts or sores
  • Not sharing towels or other personal items

If you think you may have a staph infection, see a healthcare provider. Treatment can vary depending on the type of infection you have.

Common Colds and the Flu at the Gym

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. However, they can also pass spread through contact with contaminated surfaces—including 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 against the flu is getting your yearly flu shot. Also, for colds and the flu, remember to:

  • Thoroughly wash your hands
  • Use alcohol-based sanitizer during and after leaving the gym
  • Take precautions—e.g., wipe down equipment—even if no one at the gym seems ill

That last one is very important to consider: "People are spreading these viruses before they even realize they're sick," warned Dr. Marcussen. If you end up with a cold or the flu, you should see a healthcare provider if:

  • Symptoms are long-lasting (more than 10 days)
  • Symptoms are severe, unusual, or concerning
  • You are at high risk for flu complications

Herpes at the Gym

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.

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.

If you have any of the following issues, seek medical attention:

  • Severe or long-lasting—more than two weeks—symptoms
  • Sores or blisters close to your eyes
  • Symptoms of herpes, along with a weakened immune system

A Quick Review

Going to the gym can expose you to germs that can cause issues like staph infections, ringworms, and colds. However, the risk of infections doesn't mean you have to stop going to the gym.

There are many ways to help reduce or prevent these infections. They are rooted in hygienic practices like washing your hands, wiping down equipment, and changing and washing clothes.

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Sources
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