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Common Skin Infections in Young Athletes

What to Know About Skin Conditions as Your Young Athlete Heads Back to School

Among the risks that come with youth sports, such as the occasional pulled muscle, ankle sprain, or even broken bone, are the often lesser-known but highly common skin infections in young athletes.

Athletes are at greater risk of developing a skin condition because of being in close contact with other players, and the presence of sweat and wetness against the skin that provides an ideal environment for bacteria. 

In most cases, skin conditions in young athletes won’t prevent their participation in a sport, but there are more serious skin infections where contact should be avoided. With sports clubs and teams starting up with back-to-school in the fall, you and your young athletes should be aware of different skin conditions, how to treat them, and how they can be prevented. 

Common, Contagious Skin Infections in Young Athletes

Due to the unique conditions of gyms and the environment that is present in contact sports, bacteria often grows easily and can infect unsuspecting young athletes who simply suffered a scrape or forgot to bandage an open wound. 

In some cases, these skin conditions and infections can be more long-term and require ongoing treatment, and depending on the severity, they can impact a player’s ability to participate. Early identification and treatment, however, can make a significant difference. 

Staph infections. The risk of contracting a staph infection is one of the primary reasons why it is important to bandage any open sore before going to a gym facility or playing a contact sport. The bacteria, staphylococcus aureus, spreads through skin-to-skin contact and enters the body easily through open wounds. Staph can cause a number of different types of infections; the most common to athletic environments are cellulitis and skin abscesses, both of which affect the inner layer of the skin. 

  • Symptoms: Red, swollen, warm, sensitive skin. In the case of an abscess, it may have the appearance of a hard ball, which can be filled with fluid.
  • Risks: Staph infections can become resistant to antibiotics, making them far more difficult to treat. This form, known as Methicillin-Resistant Staphylococcus Aureus (MRSA) must be addressed right away to avoid systemic infection. 
  • Treatment: Topical or oral antibiotics, and drainage of the abscess if present. Always cover the affected area with a bandage and clean thoroughly. 

Ringworm. Primarily a risk for young athletes who come in close contact with one another and share equipment like helmets or gloves, Ringworm, which is caused by a fungus (not a worm), can cause a number of different skin reactions. Ringworm spreads easily between infected people, animals, or objects contaminated with the fungus, such as a piece of equipment or a locker room floor. Depending on which part of the body it affects, Ringworm has different names: when it impacts the feet it is known as Athlete’s Foot; when it impacts the groin it is often called Jock Itch, and when it impacts the scalp it is known as Scalp Ringworm.

  • Symptoms: A red, itchy, ring-shaped skin rash. Symptoms of Athlete’s Foot include an itchy, burning rash between the toes and on the soles of the feet. It can also cause blisters. Symptoms of Scalp Ringworm include itchy, scaly, red bald spots.
  • Risks: In rare cases, the infection can go deeper into the skin and make it more difficult to treat. Scalp Ringworm can also become more severe if left untreated, resulting in larger or permanent bald spots.
  • Treatment: Antifungal creams, powders, or oral medications are effective at treating Ringworm. Antifungal shampoos are often also prescribed to prevent Scalp Ringworm from spreading.

Warts. There are many different types of warts individuals can develop as a result of physical contact, and young athletes in particular contract them easily, commonly on the bottom of the feet or in-between fingers. They may impact participation in sports depending on where they are located and how severe they are, but warts are typically very treatable. 

  • Symptoms: A round area of hard tissue that sticks out from the skin or is embedded in the skin, and is painful when pressure is applied. 
  • Risks: When left untreated, warts can continue to grow and cause greater discomfort, impacting daily life. 
  • Treatment: Dermatologist-administered cryotherapy, in which liquid nitrogen is used to freeze the skin, is effective at removing warts. In other cases, an over-the-counter wart removal treatment can be effective. 

Impetigo. Caused by strains of both staphylococcus aureus bacteria and streptococcus bacteria, Impetigo is highly contagious but easy to treat. It is more common among children and spreads easily in athletic environments due to close contact between players and the prevalence of a warm or humid environment. 

  • Symptoms: It typically manifests as a rash that can be characterized by small blisters. Often, a dark or honey-colored crust appears if the blisters have burst. 
  • Risks: It can spread very quickly to other parts of the body through contact transfer.
  • Treatment: Impetigo is easy to treat with topical or oral antibiotics, but because it is so contagious, players should wait to participate until it has cleared up.

Other Common Skin Conditions That Can Affect Young Athletes

Young athletes are prone to developing skin conditions that are temporary or non-contagious and, depending on severity, unlikely to impact their participation in a sport. These skin conditions are more common and rarely are cause for concern.

Cuts, scrapes, and other skin sores. Young athletes often develop skin injuries like cuts, scrapes, blisters, or friction burns. While common and often seen as minor, these injuries should be treated and well-bandaged to prevent blood or other fluids from coming into contact with other players. As long as the player can still comfortably participate, these skin injuries shouldn’t impact participation. 

Folliculitis. Easily spread through skin-to-skin contact, Folliculitis manifests as small, itchy red bumps or white head pimples and occurs when the hair follicles become infected and inflamed. Folliculitis can appear anywhere on the skin and is typically caused by bacterial or fungal infections. Bacterial Folliculitis is generally caused by staphylococcus aureus after it enters the body through an open wound. Folliculitis typically clears on its own, but in more severe cases, a dermatologist may prescribe an antibiotic or antifungal cream.

Psoriasis. This itchy, chronic, autoimmune skin disease is not caused by athletics; rather, certain athletic conditions can cause flare ups or discomfort for individuals who suffer from psoriasis. For young athletes, avoiding scrapes and skin lesions during play can help reduce the onset of psoriasis symptoms. During flare ups, players should avoid synthetic fabrics, use skin-protecting lotions and sunblock, stay hydrated, and clean off immediately to limit the amount of time sweat stays on the body. Psoriasis is not contagious. Read more about Psoriasis here:

Minimizing the Risk of Contracting a Skin Condition or Infection in an Athletic Environment

Contact between players is often inevitable in sports, but there are precautions young athletes can take to minimize their exposure to and risk of a skin condition or infection. 

  • Wear breathable clothing. Most athletic apparel is moisture-wicking and breathable, which helps keep the skin dry and prevent the growth or spread of bacteria.
  • Shower after practices and games. Washing up right after a practice or game reduces the amount of time sweat lingers on the skin, allows cuts and scrapes to be cleaned up, and prevents the growth or spread of bacteria.
  • Don’t share personal care items. Towels, razors, hair brushes, soap, and other items can all facilitate the spread of harmful bacteria. Players should use their own items and avoid sharing with others. 
  • Wash athletic clothes, gear, and towels. Wearing the same sweat-soaked clothes or gear multiple times allows bacteria to flourish and enter the body through the skin more easily. Washing or disinfecting these items between practices and games stops bacteria in its tracks and keeps players healthier and safer.
  • Cover those feet. Warts and other skin conditions can spread through surfaces like locker room floors, especially in humid, moisture-laden shower areas. Wearing flip flops protects players’ feet and keeps bacteria from getting in.
  • Bandage or cover open sores. Even if it’s just a paper cut, putting a bandage over an open wound keeps the skin protected during high-intensity activities that can be a breeding ground for bacterial growth. 

Young athletes are likely not thinking about the risks of skin conditions and infections when they’re out on the field or in the gym, but prevention is far easier than having to treat what can be severe or highly uncomfortable symptoms.

Additionally, many of these skin conditions or infections can impact an entire team – not just a single player – if allowed to spread. The earlier they are identified and treated, the better. It is a good idea to routinely conduct skin checks on young athletes to be sure there are no skin anomalies present. 

In the event of a skin condition or infection in your young athlete, The Dermatology Center of Indiana is here to help. We are committed to helping our patients navigate treatment and get young athletes back in the game as soon as possible.

Request an appointment for a routine back-to-school skin check or to explore treatment.