This post contains graphic images of skin conditions.
- Hot, sweaty environments like gyms are perfect places for bacteria and fungi to thrive and spread.
- Infections like ringworm, warts, and athlete’s foot can spread from contact with public locker rooms and shared workout equipment.
- Going to the gym is still a healthy habit. You can work out and stay healthy with simple tips, like not sharing towels and washing your hands regularly.
- Visit INSIDER’s homepage for more.
From gym rats to occasional exercisers, more than 70 million Americans have gone to a health club in the last year, and that doesn’t count folks who work out in other facilities, like boutique studios, public pools, and company gyms.
And while gym-goers may aim to leave sessions stronger, lighter, faster, or healthier than before, they can also depart with an unwanted skin condition.
Such infections are more common that you might think. A study from Fit Rated, a fitness equipment review site, found that gym weights have 362 times more germs than a toilet seat.
Here are some of the most likely culprits for post-workout rash, bumps, or sores, and how you can avoid getting and spreading gym germs.
Folliculitis is an itchy rash caused by hair follicles infected with bacteria.
Folliculitis is a common affliction that looks like itchy red bumps or acne. If you think you have it, don’t scratch – the bumps can turn into crusty sores that cause permanent scars.
The condition is caused by microbes like bacteria or fungus that get inside hair follicles in the skin, causing infection.
In severe cases, folliculitis might look less like acne and more like blisters or a even large, swollen mass. The most severe cases are caused by Staphylococcus bacteria, according to the Mayo Clinic.
The good news is, it’s very treatable with medicated creams. In the worst cases, an oral antibiotics prescription can take care of it.
To avoid folliculitis in the first place, try not to wear tight-fitting clothes to the gym, since they can cause friction, which irritates your skin – especially when sweating. Keep your skin clean by showering after exercise, and don’t share towels or washcloths. Also, avoid shaving if your skin is irritated – a little fuzz is better than a rash.
Ringworm is a fungal infection that causes a red, scaly rash, often in a ring-shaped pattern.
The fact that it’s not actually caused by a worm is little consolation if you’ve got ringworm – a common, itchy rash that can easily spread from contact with infected people or surfaces.
The infection occurs when tiny fungal parasites make a home for themselves in the top layer of your skin, causing raised, scaly patches that can be red, pink, or grey. These areas can be itchy or cause a burning, stinging sensation. The condition can spread from one area of your body to another.
Sweating, as well as contact with contaminated surfaces like locker room floors, can both spread ringworm, making the gym a hotbed of infection.
Fortunately, it can be treated with various antifungals, including topical sprays and creams. Large affected areas can be treated with prescription medication, according to the American Academy of Dermatology.
Contact sports, especially wrestling and football, are major risk factors for ringworm. If you’re an athlete, maintain good hygiene after practice or competitions and consider investing in a rash guard, or a long-sleeved athletic top designed to protect the skin.
Athlete’s foot is a common, itchy infection caused by fungus on the feet.
Tinea pedis, better know as athlete’s foot, is a common fungal infection of the feet. It most often appears as itchy, peeling skin between the toes. It’s caused by the same fungus as ringworm.
You can get it by any kind of exposure to the fungus, like by walking barefoot in public showers, locker rooms, swimming pools, or anywhere with a damp surface, according to the Centres for Disease Control and Prevention.
Athlete’s foot can be unpleasant, causing itching or burning on the infected area, but shouldn’t be scratched because touching it can spread the fungus to your hands.
The good news is athletes foot doesn’t cause any serious side effects and can be treated with a skin cream or oral medications.
To prevent it, wear sandals in public spaces and keep your toes (and toenails) clean and dry.
Jock itch is a fungal infection of the groin.
Another form of ringworm infection is tinea cruris – better known as jock itch, it’s an infection of the groin area.
Fungus loves warm, moist, and unventilated areas, making your nether region a perfect target, especially after a vigorous, sweaty gym session. It’s often spread by athlete’s foot – either from a towel or on your hands. It causes itchy, flaky skin, but can also cause red bumps, blisters, and sores.
Although anyone can get jock itch, people who sweat more are most at risk. This is why it tends to be more common in men, since they’re generally the sweatier sex.
A shower and good toweling-off after exercise will help prevent this kind of intimate acquaintance with fungus. If you do get it, however, a good antifungal medication can stop the rash in its tracks.
Staph infections are often minor, but can be deadly if they spread deeper than your skin.
The staphylococcus bacteria are relatively common microbes that can be found even on healthy people, according to the Mayo Clinic. But once they enter an open wound and multiply, they can quickly become a problem, causing everything from mild skin problems to food poisoning, sepsis, toxic shock syndrome, and even death.
Staph infections at the gym, however, are unlikely and easy to prevent, the New York Times reported. The bacteria are everywhere, so the key is to avoid letting them through the skin.
Don’t share razors, towels, or other personal items. Keep open wounds covered at the gym and during workouts, especially if you’re in contact with other sweaty people or things they have touched. Always wash your hands after your workout.
If you do get a staph infection, a doctor can diagnose it and prescribe antibiotics.
Impetigo is a type of staph infection common in children, but adults can get it too.
Impetigo is a highly contagious skin infection caused by two common bacteria, including staph and streptococcus, which is also the cause of strep throat.
Most impetigo cases occur among children who are 2 to 5 years old, since that’s when they often spend time with other youngsters at places like day care or preschool.
However, adults can get impetigo too, especially if they’re in close contact with an infected person or touch a piece of workout equipment that’s hosting the bacteria.
Impetigo appears as red, pimple-like bumps full of pus that can turn into crusty sores. Like many skin diseases you can get at the gym, small impetigo infections can be treated with an antibiotic skin cream. Larger infections can be treated with an oral medication.
Washing your hands dramatically reduces your risk of impetigo, according to the Mayo Clinic. And again, don’t share your towels or razors.
Plantar warts can be uncomfortable, but aren’t serious.
Plantar warts are caused by a viral infection of the skin, commonly on the hands or feet. They look like small, fleshy bumps and may be painful.
Many cases of warts spread when your bare feet touch the locker room, shower, or pool floor, according to the Mayo Clinic, allowing the virus in through small cuts or breaks in the skin.
Warts don’t pose any serious health problems, but can still be irritating, so avoid them by investing in a good pair of flip-flops. Keep your feet (and footwear) clean.
If you do get warts, wash your hands after touching them to keep them from spreading. They may go away on their own, but that process can take a year or two. If you don’t want to wait, a medical professional can assist with treatment via freezing or acid removal.
Molluscum contagiosum are small, benign bumps on the skin caused by a pox virus.
Molluscum contagiosum consists of small, flesh-coloured bumps called mollusca, caused by a pox virus. The bumps are often “pearly” looking, according to the CDC, and can be itchy, sore, or swollen, but are usually harmless.
The virus is most often spread through direct contact with another person. Since the disease thrives in warm, moist environments, it may be possible to get it from contaminated objects, particularly towels or pool equipment. Still, this theory is unproven, the CDC reports.
The most common cause of transmission is sexual contact, but any skin-to-skin touch can spread it, so a contact sport or workout buddy could be a source of contagion.
Treatment is usually unnecessary, as the ailment will clear up on its own eventually. Mollusca do take a long time to resolve, however. In most cases, it takes between six months to a year, but sometimes the bumps can last as long as four years.
You can technically get herpes at the gym.
Herpes is most often known as an sexually transmitted infection, but it can also be spread through the saliva of a person with an oral herpes infection. For instance, the virus can spread through shared eating utensils, towels, or razors. One woman even claimed she got herpes through a lipstick sample.
A particular type of herpes simplex virus one, or HSV-1, is known as mat herpes, and is found among athletes in contact sports, such as wrestling. However, while it is possible to get it from a dirty mat, it’s highly unlikely, according to Men’s Health.
As a general hygiene and courtesy practice, wipe down your gym mats before and after use, but don’t lose any sleep over whether your workout buddy has a cold sore.
While it’s not curable, the herpes virus doesn’t have any serious long-term side effects, and medication can shorten outbreaks and help prevent the infection from spreading.
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