Simple steps can help reduce your risk of contracting potentially deadly superbug

With beach-season looming, the fitness bug is motivating Chicagoans to fill area gyms in droves, all hoping to buff up before the warm-weather season of fun gets into full swing.

People who workout at gyms should know that the effort to get the perfect physique comes with the heightened risk of contracting community-associated methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus, the potentially deadly superbug known as MRSA, said Dr. Jorge Parada, associate professor of medicine, infectious diseases, Loyola University Chicago Stritch School of Medicine, Maywood.

"There is no doubt that MRSA and other infections can be transmitted without direct person-to-person contact," said Parada, who is also medical director of the infection control program at Loyola University Hospital in Maywood. "Although it's low, it is possible to catch MRSA by using shared gym equipment like free weights or exercise cycles. The first step in preventing the spread of any type of infection is awareness of the possibility."

Most MRSA infections occur in hospitals and in other healthcare settings but the number of community-associated cases is rising in the United States, Parada said. Currently, between 5 to 10 percent of people are infected, and it is not known when that number will plateau.

"If we were dealing with something that virtually nobody had, then it wouldn't be a big deal," Parada said. "The problem with the MRSA epidemic in the community is you don't know when you're going to touch something that somebody with MRSA touched."

Given the conditions, MRSA can survive for hours, even days on the surface of gym equipment and other inanimate objects, Parada said.

"All germs' survival depend on if the surface they're on is dry or wet and if the surface is warm versus cold," Parada said. "In general, what's true for most germs is dry germs have shorter lives and wet germs have longer lives."

For the most part, the benefits of exercise outweigh the risks of catching MRSA, Parada said. However, there are steps you can take that can minimize your chances of catching MRSA from an inanimate object in a gym. For instance, you should always use clothing or a towel as a barrier between your skin and shared equipment, such as weight-training machines, wrestling or yoga mats and sauna and locker room benches. Also, customers should insist that the gym have antiseptic wipes readily available to be used to clean equipment before and after each use.

"Before, so you don't get what somebody left, and after, so you don't leave a potentially harmful present for somebody else," Parada said.

Another factor that could help MRSA spread more easily in gyms is during workouts and athletic competition, people tend to wear less clothing, which results in greater skin-to-skin contact and more cuts and abrasions, said Alex Tomich, RN, MSN, infection control practitioner at Loyola University Medical Center in Maywood.

"Any open sores should be covered with a bandage and kept clean in order to prevent someone else from becoming exposed to a possible case of MRSA," Tomich said.

Practicing good personal hygiene is the key to protecting yourself from contracting MRSA, according to Parada and Tomich.

"Washing your hands a number of times a day is the best defense we have against MRSA infections. That simple act trumps everything else that you can do," Tomich said. "And you should always make sure to shower after every workout."

In addition, you should never share personal items such as towels, clothing, swim wear combs, soap, shampoo or shaving gear with anyone else.

With the heightened interest in MRSA, many health clubs and gyms have begun beefing up their cleaning procedures. However, customers should make it a point to inquire how high-touch areas and equipment are being cleaned, how often and what type of cleanser is being used. Also, if the gym provides towels, customers need to know if the gym washes and dries them in temperatures high enough to kill MRSA.

Based in the western suburbs of Chicago, Loyola University Health System is a quaternary care system with a 61-acre main medical center campus and 22 primary and specialty care facilities in Cook, Will and DuPage counties. The medical center campus is conveniently located in Maywood, 13 miles west of the Chicago Loop and 8 miles east of Oak Brook, Ill. The heart of the medical center campus, Loyola University Hospital, is a 570-licensed bed facility currently undergoing a significant expansion project. It houses a Level 1 Trauma Center, a Burn Center and the Ronald McDonald® Children's Hospital of Loyola University Medical Center. Also on campus are the Cardinal Bernardin Cancer Center, Loyola Outpatient Center, Center for Heart & Vascular Medicine and Loyola Oral Health Center as well as the LUC Stritch School of Medicine, the LUC Marcella Niehoff School of Nursing and the Loyola Center for Health & Fitness.


The opinions expressed here are the views of the writer and do not necessarily reflect the views and opinions of News Medical.
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