Broken bones, bruised muscles, cuts and scrapes aren’t the only injuries young athletes can suffer on the football field.
A serious skin infection called Methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus Aureus (MRSA) can start out looking like a bug bite or pimple but spreads quickly if not treated. MRSA is avoidable with some simple precautions but warning signs need to be taken seriously, said Dr. John Lehtinen, a family medicine expert at the Peninsula Medical Center in Marquette, Mich., and a member of USA Football’s Football and Wellness Committee.
“Most of the time, athletes contract MRSA from someone else who has it,” said Lehtinen, who also is the team physician for Northern Michigan University. “People who play sports with a higher contact rate are at greater risk – wrestling, football, rugby.
“It is important for coaches, parents and athletes to be aware of it – not be afraid of it, but be aware of it.”
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, MRSA is a type of staph bacteria that is resistant to certain antibiotics, including methicillin, oxacillin, penicillin and amoxicillin. Severe or potentially life-threatening MRSA infections occur most frequently among patients in healthcare settings, but the condition also spreads through person-to-person or person-to-object contact.
Most MRSA infections appear as pimples or boils that often are red, swollen, painful and can include pus or other drainage. What first may look like spider bites or bumps, they commonly occur alongside visible skin trauma, such as cuts and abrasions.
David Csillan is a fulltime athletic trainer for the Ewing (N.J.) school district and also a member of the Football and Wellness Committee. He said he constantly talks to parents and players about the warning signs for MRSA, hoping they keep it in the back of their head when an infection may arise.
“A few years ago, an athlete came to me and presented what he thought was a pimple on his knee,” Csillan said. “The next day, it worsened. He went to the emergency room and tested positive for MRSA. If he had not come to me and we had not been looking for it, it could have been a serious situation.”
Csillan said MRSA can spread not just during onfield activities but by bumping together in locker rooms, by sharing towels and practice jerseys or even by using light switches after an infected person does. His school system uses EPA-approved disinfectant on floors, walls, weight room equipment and locker rooms to help with prevention.
The No. 1 preventative measure for individuals is washing with soap and water. That includes bodies, clothes, towels, equipment and rooms – anywhere bacteria can spread. Csillan advises that high school athletes shower at the school before leaving and that youth players go directly home to shower immediately after practice or games.
“Don’t take your child straight to the mall or to a friend’s house. Go home first to let him or her shower,” Csillan said.
Discerning between MRSA and a common pimple starts with location, Lehtinen said. MRSA appears most often on areas of the body that are exposed.
It is extremely uncommon for MRSA to infect body parts covered by a uniform, shoes or helmet, Lehtinen said.
“If you have something on your face or shoulders or back, anywhere that’s covered, there is less suspicion,” Lehtinen said. “However, though it often starts on arms or hands, it can auto-inoculate all over your body if you don’t wash or if you try to pop it like a pimple.”
Lehtinen said MRSA outbreaks often are regional, so parents and coaches should keep an eye out for news stories in their area. All it takes is for one member of a team to contract it, and others can be at risk.
“You need to find these infections early and treat them as quickly as possible so it doesn’t become an issue,” Lehtinen said. “It can look like a common pimple today but take off like wildfire the next day, spreading into lesions on other parts of the body if left untreated.”
Parents, coaches and league officials need to establish what Csillan calls his “triple-E mind set:” evaluate the situation, establish a protocol and execute the plan.
MRSA can become serious if left untreated, but there are ways to prevent it from getting that far.
“When I see a football player with a suspicious pimple where you don’t normally see pimples, to me it’s better to act prudently,” Csillan said. “Isolate the athlete out, cover the lesion and get them to treatment. If there is any indication, take an aggressive approach.”
What you need to know
Here’s what the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says about Methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus Aureus (MRSA), a type of staph bacteria that is resistant to certain antibiotics:
Symptoms Most MRSA infections appear as pustules (pimples) or boils which often are red, swollen, painful and/or have pus or other drainage. They often first look like spider bites or bumps. These commonly occur at sites of visible skin trauma, such as cuts and abrasions.
Prevention Thoroughly wash with soap and water or use an alcohol-based hand rub after activities that include physical contact. Keep cuts and scrapes clean and covered with a bandage until healed. Avoid contact with other people’s wounds or bandages. Avoid sharing personal items such as towels or razors.
Treatment Do not attempt to treat a MRSA skin infection by yourself. This includes popping, draining or using disinfectants on the area. This could worsen or spread the bacteria. See a health care professional and if you are given an antibiotic be sure to take all of the doses, even if the infection appears to get better.
To learn more about MRSA, visit the CDC website.