Infection and sport

Which infections are spread during sports activities?

How easy is it to pick up an infection while participating in sports, and which sports are most likely to be associated with the spread of disease? These two questions are of special interest to competitive athletes, many of whom are concerned about the possibility of contracting Hepatitis B, a herpes virus infection, or even AIDS as a result of their sports activities.

The scientific literature reveals that – due to the close-contact nature of their sports – wrestlers, rugby players, and American football participants are most at risk for picking up an infection from another player. The most commonly spread disease is a viral, ‘herpes simplex’ skin infection (also called ‘herpes gladiatorium’), which is easily acquired by wrestlers and rugby players. For example, 60 out of 175 wrestlers at a training camp in Minnesota recently came down with herpes gladiatorium. Medical experts determined that the herpes virus was spread readily because some wrestlers were allowed to compete even though they had skin rashes. Transmission of the virus occurred through skin-to-skin contact, with the recipient of the virus more likely to become ill if he already possessed skin abrasions from ‘mat burns.’ It was believed that no viruses were spread via soap, saliva, or shared water bottles.

However, that doesn’t mean that drinking fluids from a common water bottle is trouble-free. Five years ago, three football players from Ohio, their coach, and a student manager all developed viral meningitis, a potentially severe inflammation of the membranes surrounding the brain and spinal cord, within a one-week time span. The sharing of a common drinking vessel seemed to be the key factor which spread the disease.

At about the same time, several members of a high school football team in New York came down with viral lung infections after drinking water from the team cooler. Doctors attending to the team members reckoned that the outbreak could have been prevented if they players had used disposable cups and avoided oral contact with common drinking containers.

A ‘childhood disease’ – measles – represents a hazard for participants in indoor sports, with gymnasts, wrestlers, and basketball players, as well as spectators, at special risk. Packed, humid gyms represent the ideal venue for the measles virus; humidity seems to keep the virus viable while it is airborne. and the dense packing of people makes it easy for the virus to get from one person to another. For example, in the spring of 1991, a high school wrestling tournament in Maryland resulted in 126 new cases of measles, scattered throughout the state (the wrestlers literally took the measles viruses – acquired during the tournament – home with them). Not surprisingly, health experts suggest that more athletes should be vaccinated against the measles virus. For similar reasons, experts recommend ‘flu shots’ and injections of the hepatitis B vaccine for contact-sport athletes, too.

Hepatitis B is more worrying than measles, but no cases of hepatitis B transmission through sports have been reported in the United States or Britain. Only in Japan, where five sumo wrestlers were infected with hepatitis B after a teammate bled on them, has there been a clearcut report of hepatitis B transmission during sports activities.

The bottom line? If you’re careful about avoiding oral contact with common drinking vessels and skin contact with infected athletes, the risk of picking up serious infections during your sports activities is fairly low. You can decrease your risk even further by obtaining, flu, measles, and Hepatitis B vaccinations.

(Eichner, E. Randy, M.D., ‘Contagious Infections in Competitive Sports,’ Sports Science Exchange, vol. 8 (3), 1995)

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