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Gyms can potentially be hotbeds of germs and disease. This is because people touch the equipment, sweat, breathe heavily, and do it all in an environment conducive to bacterial and fungal growth: warm and moist.
It may turn your stomach to imagine the possibilities, but while gyms naturally harbor microorganisms, they don't have to make people sick. If you are a gym owner or a trainer responsible for keeping clients safe, know what the common communicable diseases are, how to spot their signs, and how to avoid their spread.
The types of diseases most often found in gyms and that can easily spread from one person to another may be caused by a fungus, bacteria, or viruses. Some are skin conditions, while others are respiratory infections. Know the basics about these diseases so you can prevent them and recognize the signs early if you do contract one.
This is a fungal infection that also causes jock itch. A group of fungi cause these conditions and trigger a red, itchy rash. The skin may also become blistered or scaly and peel. The feet and groin are the most common areas for these infections, but it can also occur in the armpits and under the breasts.
The common cold is a group of viruses that cause an upper respiratory infection. While annoying, this is not a serious infection. It causes congestion, runny nose, coughing, sneezing, sore throat, headache, and a general feeling of being unwell or fatigued.
COVID-19 is caused by a novel, or new, coronavirus. Because this is a new disease, symptoms are still being discovered. It most often causes coughing, shortness of breath, and a fever. You may also lose your sense of smell or taste, feel fatigued, get chills and muscle aches, and have a sore throat.
The flu is caused by the influenza virus. A new vaccine is required every year because the virus mutates and changes seasonally. Symptoms of the flu include fever, chills and sweating, muscle aches, cough, congestion, sore throat, headache, fatigue, and weakness. It is often confused with the cold, but the major differences are that the flu causes a fever and that it generally feels much worse. For most people, the flu will run its course, but for those with chronic illnesses or a compromised immune system, it can be serious and even fatal.
Also known as folliculitis, this rash is caused by bacteria that grow in pools and hot tubs that don't have the right levels of chlorine. An early sign of infection is a red, itchy rash around the edges of the swimsuit. As it develops, the infection can cause blisters around hair follicles. It should go away on its own, but see your doctor if it does not.
Human papillomavirus can cause infections through skin-to-skin or skin-to-surface contact. Most common in gyms are plantar warts. These are small growths on the bottom of the feet that may develop calluses. They are not serious and can be treated easily.
Also called conjunctivitis, a number of things can cause this condition. In gyms, bacteria or a virus may trigger it. The symptoms are redness and itchiness in the eyes, a gritty feeling in the eyes, eye discharge, and tearing. This is highly contagious through touching affected surfaces and then the eyes. Treatment isn't usually necessary.
Ringworm is not caused by a worm, thankfully. This is a fungal skin infection. Unfortunately, though, it is highly contagious and can spread before an individual has any symptoms. The name of the infection comes from the main sign: a ring-shaped area of skin that is scaly and red. It may also be itchy, raised, and have red bumps in the middle.
Staphylococcus bacteria cause staph infections, which can take many forms. In gyms, it is most likely to cause a skin infection with symptoms that include boils, a swollen, red area of skin that contains pus. It can also cause impetigo, a painful rash with blistering, or cellulitis, a deeper infection that causes swelling, redness, and discharge.
MRSA is an infection caused by a type of staph that has developed resistance to most antibiotics. It is more common in healthcare settings, but MRSA can be in gyms. It has similar signs to other staph skin infections but may also include a fever. A life-threatening MRSA infection is rare but possible, so it is important to monitor signs of skin infections and to see your doctor if they persist.
Known more accurately as viral gastroenteritis, this infection has nothing to do with influenza. It is caused by rotavirus and noroviruses. Stomach flu causes diarrhea, stomach cramping, nausea, vomiting, and in some cases a low fever, muscle aches, and headache. The biggest danger of stomach flu is dehydration. Some people need to be hospitalized to rehydrate with intravenous fluids, but most recover on their own in a few days.
There are some simple things you can do to prevent infections, both in yourself and others. For instance, remind people to skip the gym if they feel sick or have any kind of skin rash or infection. If everyone did that, it would cut down significantly on the spread of disease. Also, know how infections spread and practice good hygiene while at the gym.
Everyone appreciates good gym etiquette. These are the top five do's of being a responsible gym user.
Fungi thrive in warmth and moisture. Wet towels and sweaty gym clothes harbor the fungal spores that cause athlete's foot and ringworm, for instance. Wet floors can also contain fungi. Touch any of these things that are contaminated, and you could get the infection. Skin-to-skin contact can also spread the disease.
Bacteria, fungus, and viruses can all survive on surfaces for varying periods of time. When you touch a surface, such as a barbell handle, and then touch your face or body, you can become infected. Skin infections spread by getting into cracks, small cuts, or even hair follicles on the skin.
Respiratory infections can spread by touching surfaces or infected people, but also through the air. When someone with a virus coughs or sneezes, they spread respiratory droplets that others may inhale, causing illness.
Not all gyms are the same. All should take cleanliness seriously, but some do better than others. Before joining a gym, clients will want to tour the facilities and look for signs of adherence to hygiene practices: clean bathrooms and locker rooms, signs that clearly list rules and regulations, plenty of clean towels, hand sanitizer, and cleaning supplies readily available for wiping down equipment.
Knowing how communicable diseases spread, you can take steps to lower your risk of contracting one. Even in clean gyms with solid hygiene policies, it is possible to spread disease, so always take these steps seriously:
Avoid touching other people.
Wear loose-fitting gym clothes that breathe and wick away moisture. Here's the lowdown on what's best to wear to the gym.
Bring your own mat.
Wipe down and disinfect gym equipment before you use it.
Be aware of other gym users and give space to anyone who seems sick.
If you have cuts or minor wounds, keep them covered.
Avoid touching your face while working out.
Wash your hands after working out.
Wear flip-flops in the locker room and never go barefoot anywhere in the gym.
Shower as soon after a workout as possible and get into clean clothes.
Get a flu shot every year if you can.
Talk to the gym manager if you have concerns about cleanliness or another gym-goer.
Gym members and clients must take responsibility for their own safety and health when working out. They should follow guidelines and rules and protect themselves and others through responsible practices. However, a big part of the responsibility also lies with the owners of gyms and employees. Take these steps to maintain a safe, clean gym:
Have a set of policies and rules in place for cleaning the gym regularly.
Set rules for clients, such as wiping down equipment after use or wearing shoes at all times.
Display the rules prominently throughout the gym.
Provide soap and hand sanitizer.
Provide clean towels and disinfectants for cleaning equipment after each use.
Disinfect high-contact surfaces several times a day.
Clean the locker room and bathroom once a day.
Set a schedule for staff to assign cleaning responsibilities.
Keep a log for recording when everything has been cleaned.
Germs and communicable disease can be scary. Most are not dangerous or serious, but some are and can cause real health problems. Don't let this keep you or your clients out of the gym, though. For most people, the benefits of physical activity outweigh the risk of infectious disease. And, if you take the right precautions, are aware of symptoms, and see your doctor as needed, you can prevent getting sick or getting an infection.
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