You used the same towel you toted around the gym floor during your workout to dry off after the sauna. Or perhaps you showered off without flip-flops and walked around the locker room barefoot shortly thereafter. Maybe you even tore open a protein bar and scarfed it down without washing your hands as you changed out of your gym clothes. Or perhaps you just forgot to pack an extra pair of socks and had to put on your previously sweaty ones after cleaning up following a serious cardio session. We may be guilty of committing some of these gross gym crimes too, but after digging into the research about what’s really lurking in the locker room—we promise to wash up, wipe up, and improve our germ exposure game.
Here are 10 organisms you may be exposed to — and how to buffer yourself so they don’t get you sick.
Swab anyone’s skin and you’ll likely find some variation of the bacteria staphylococcus (a.k.a. STAPH), says David J. Westenberg, Associate Professor in the Biological Sciences and Chemical and Biochemical Engineering Departments at Missouri University of Science and Technology.
If you’ve ever heard of staph infections, which cause toxic shock syndrome or death in their most extreme iterations, you may be panicking in the face this reality. But Westenberg reassures us that most staph strains won’t put you at imminent risk. “Staph is a common skin microbe that we all have, it’s on the skin cells we slough off, and so ends up on just about any gym surface.”
Even still, just for the purposes of hygiene it’s smart to keep your wounds and cuts covered, lest any of this bacteria sneak into your bloodstream or cause an infection at the site of your injury.
Methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus (MRSA), however, is another story. Unlike the other strains of staph, this one is, as its name implies, resistant to most antibiotics. As a result it has a higher likelihood of causing complications if it enters your bloodstream through an open wound—think pneumonia or sepsis (yikes!).
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) estimate that two in 100 people carry MRSA. So with a crowded locker room where hundreds filter in an out each day, it’s a good idea to avoid sharing towels, razors, or any other objects that may have touched an infected area of someone’s skin.
Consider that wet towels can provide MRSA with a comfortable breeding ground, so don’t use the same towel you worked out with to dry off after a shower, suggests Westenberg. Always wash any towels you’ve used in the locker room or on the gym floor with hot, soapy water or bleach.
MRSA and other staph infections typically appear as a bump or infected area on the skin that’s red, swollen, painful or warm to the touch, or teeming with pus. Staph infections may also be accompanied by a fever.
Call your doctor immediately if any of the above apply to you.
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Ringworm. Also known as tinea, ringworm is an extremely contagious fungal infection whose symptoms include ring-shaped rashes as well as itchy, scaly, and cracked skin. It’s referred to as “athlete’s foot” when it crops up on your feet and “jock itch” when it crops up in your groin area. (It can also appear elsewhere on your body, including your scalp and face.) Anyone using public showers or locker rooms on the regular has a higher likelihood of encountering the fungus, according to the CDC. And if you or anyone coming into your locker room is freshening up after contact sports, that rate is even higher.
Keep this nasty infection at bay by wearing shower shoes and avoiding walking barefoot in the locker room, sharing nothing except workout tips while you’re cleaning up, and (again, from the CDC) “changing your socks and underwear at least once a day.” (Did we really have to remind you of that last one?)
If you do come down with it, rest assured that it’s treatable. (Just be sure to avoid physical contact with people while you’re on the mend and consult with your doctor ASAP.) Non-prescription creams containing miconazole and clotrimazole often resolve the issue within a month.
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“Influenza is a virus which infects the nose, throat and lungs and causes the flu,” explains clinician and microbiology researcher Eugene Gamble. “Especially prevalent in closed areas”—think: a locker room with few or no windows, or a poor ventilation system—“the virus is spread through the air by breathing infected droplets after someone has sneezed or coughed,” he says.
Though Gamble says there’s not much you can do to prevent getting the virus once it’s in your midst, you can protect others by avoiding the gym when you’re feeling flu-like symptoms (body aches, coughing, headaches, low energy, for starters).
Getting the flu shot can help prevent your chances of coming down with the flu.
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5. Human Papillomavirus (HPV)
Though this is better known for causing genital warts and being transmitted through intimate romantic encounters, some strains of HPV can be picked up by walking barefoot in bathrooms and showers that are shared with people who are shedding the virus, says Gamble. These strains can cause plantar warts to occur on your feet, he says. In case we needed to stress our point again: No one wants warts on their feet from using the gym. Wear shower shoes (like flip-flops) in and out of the shower.
Though more likely to afflict shared eating spaces or close living quarters (think: cruise ships) norovirus has been reportedly found in some locker rooms and pegged as a cause of some serious stomach bug outbreaks among athletes.
Consider the case of a norovirus strain that plagued 13 NBA teams in 2010, ultimately sickening 23 players in total. CDC officials launched an investigation after hearing one too many media reports about players with stomach bugs and found that the origin of players’ woes was indeed norovirus. It’s transmission was likely due, CDC experts said, to teammates “vomiting near other teammates” and spending “long periods together in closed spaces while in transit, during training sessions, in locker rooms, and during games.”
You’re not likely to pick up norovirus from simply frequenting a locker room. But do be cautious should anyone in that locker room be exhibiting symptoms of illness and steer clear of areas that look soiled just to be safe. “Norovirus can aerosolize after vomiting, persists on environmental surfaces, and is resistant to common disinfectants, and infected individuals can shed billions of infectious doses,” the CDC report reminds us.
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7. E. coli
Yup, we’re referencing that bacteria often associated with poop. “Escherichia coli is a family of bacteria found in the intestines and stool,”
says Gamble. “It is usually transmitted via contaminated water or food but has been found on gym surfaces.” Chances are, then, that it may also be tracked into the locker room—especially if people aren’t washing their hands or following proper hygiene protocols after using the restroom.
“Most types of E.coli are harmless but some can cause severe abdominal pain, vomiting and diarrhea,” says Gamble. In the event you do come into contact with the bacteria and experience these symptoms, Gamble says that most healthy people just need to remain hydrated while they let the symptoms pass. This typically takes about a week.
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Remember when you had strep throat as a kid? You can thank streptococcal bacteria for that. Gamble explains that strep “is a contagious bacterial species that is spread via airborne droplets, personal contact, equipment surfaces and drinking water.” As much as strep can give rise to sore throats and other respiratory infections (even, in worst case scenarios, pneumonia) Gamble says the bacteria can also cause sores around the mouth and nose to crop up called impetigo. infections like impetigo.
Antibiotics are typically prescribed to treat strep related infections. But to lower your likelihood of having to take them, be sure to wash your hands thoroughly and wipe down any surface areas you’re planning to expose your bare skin to with disinfectant before and after contact.
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9. Candida (yeast)
Candida is a group of fungi that causes some of the most common fungal infections, says Gamble. “It thrives in moist, warm areas so saunas, locker rooms and showers are ideal places to catch it.”
Prevent it from glomming onto you by keeping your feet covered in the locker room and ensuring your toes and groin remain clean and dry, as Gamble says the sweat and moisture that accumulates in these areas may provide a more optimal environment for the fungus.
Yet another type of bacteria, Klebsiella can cause infections at the site of a wound, bloodstream infections, and pneumonia. Rare and extreme, yes. But since Klebsiella resides on many surfaces—most prevalently in healthcare settings— it’s worth being aware of. Always wash your hands after using the rest room, wipe down any locker room areas you’re planning to sit or lie down on with a disinfectant if you can, and avoid touching your eyes and mouth after touching shared surfaces.
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Stop Hyperventilating about What We Just Said
Hospital Epidemiologist and Chairman of the Department of Medicine at South Nassau Communities Hospital in Oceanside, NY, Aaron Glatt, MD, cautions locker room frequenters everywhere to avoid panicking. “In a regular gym setting, you won’t necessarily have a higher exposure to bacteria or viruses than you would in a typical office setting,” he says.
While he advocates being wary of sharing a sauna with someone who is noticeably sick—and does acknowledge that higher temperatures can enable certain organisms to survive better—he points out that so long as you, yourself are healthy (meaning: not suffering from any kind of immunodeficiency or other disease that may decrease your body’s ability to fend off foreign invaders) and mind your hygiene, you’re likely to be safe and sound.
If you need a reminder that means washing your hands with soapy, warm water; regularly doing your laundry (especially your gym clothes), wiping down surfaces with sanitizing cloths, not sharing things like towels and razors in the gym, and not putting your fingers in your eyes or mouth after touching a shared surface.