College Athletes and Superbugs

Eleftherios Mylonakis, MD

Superbugs. It is a common term these days. But what are they?

Since antibiotics were developed, they have been used to treat bacterial infections. But sometimes too much of a good thing can be bad. Over time, bacteria learn how to change themselves so they can avoid the things that will stop them, like the body’s immune system and the antibiotics we use to treat them. At that point, they have become “antibiotic-resistant.”

One of those bacteria is methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus (MRSA). MRSA was first identified in the 1960s, but has become more widespread in recent years. In fact, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) deemed MRSA a “serious threat.” The CDC estimates that in 2011, MRSA was responsible for more than 70,000 life-threatening infections in the U.S. alone.

The effects of MRSA

Staphylococcus aureus is actually a common bacteria. MRSA, however, does not respond to typical treatment because it has built up a resistance to antibiotics. As a result, it can spread to surgical wounds, the bloodstream, bones, lungs, and more. It can become life-threatening because the infection is so difficult to treat.

An at-risk group

“Colonization” means the bacteria is in your nose or on your skin, but you have no signs of infection. One group that has been singled out as having a high rate of MRSA colonization is college athletes.

Our researchers are studying MRSA and have found a high rate among athletes who had no symptoms. Overall, our analysis showed that 6% of asymptomatic athletes were colonized with MRSA.

This colonization prevalence increased to 8% among U.S. athletes and reached a remarkable 13% among collegiate athletes. The sports with the highest colonization rates among collegiate athletes were wrestling, with 22% of athletes, followed by football and basketball, both with 8%.

MRSA spreads easily among athletes because they:

  • have increased skin-to-skin contact
  • may experience frequent cuts and scrapes that, if left uncovered, can become infected
  • often train and/or receive medical treatment in crowded spaces, including locker rooms, athletic training rooms, or weight lifting facilities
  • are sometimes unable to shower immediately after practices

Although contact sport athletes are more likely to be colonized, non-contact sport athletes are also at risk for infection. This is because it is common for them to share training rooms and athletic facilities with other athletes, including those who are involved in contact sports.

Even in student athletes who do not have any symptoms, the prevalence of MRSA is comparable to that of individuals who have chronic illnesses. In fact, colonization in this population can be twice as high as patients with chronic conditions that require stays in a hospital intensive care unit. When colonization happens, it is associated with a seven-fold increase in the occurrence of MRSA infection.

Preventing the spread of MRSA

Studies have shown that the precautions that prevent the spread of MRSA are often ignored by athletes. But there are basic hygiene habits that can go a long way in preventing the spread of bacteria. Athletes should always be reminded to do the following:

  • Wash hands before and after sports sessions.
  • Avoid sharing soap, towels, and razors.
  • Get prompt care for any wounds and cover wounds with dressing.

The high rate of MRSA colonization among collegiate athletes raises serious concerns that personal hygiene, proper sanitation, and education on prevention of infections are lacking.

Even though these young adults may be at the peak of their athletic prowess, they are still susceptible to MRSA. Steps should be taken to prevent the spread of this superbug. Given these findings, implementing MRSA surveillance, infection control, and decontamination in this group of athletes may also be ways of reducing the spread of MRSA.

For more information, visit the CDC website.