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You’re heading to the gym or pool, ready for a great workout or leisurely swim. You’ve stretched and applied sunscreen. But the one thing you might not be thinking to protect against is: germs. 

They love the gym and pool too, and live on the equipment, pavement, and locker room floors. Bacteria, viruses, and fungi grow in warm environments. And all it takes is a little cut or break in the skin and these bacterial germs can enter your body and give you a staph infection that wreaks havoc on your skin.  

Summit Health infectious disease specialist Daniel Hart, MD, and dermatologist Jenna Presto, MD, explain what staph infections are — what to do if you have one, and how to avoid getting one. 

What is a staph infection? 

“Staph infections are caused by the skin bacteria staphylococcus aureus," explains Dr. Hart. “We all have these bacteria, no matter how many times we shower. Sometimes we become infected with the bacteria either through a cut in our skin or a hair follicle." 

If you have diabetes or a weak immune system, you may be at greater risk for staph infections. 

What are the signs of a staph infection? 

Your symptoms will vary depending on what type of staph infection you have, Dr. Presto explains. There are four common types:

Impetigo. “This is a superficial infection that occurs when staphylococcus aureus invades the top layer of the skin," says Dr. Presto. “It's commonly seen in children or adults who play close contact sports.” Signs include: 

  • Yellow crusting 
  • Blisters 
  • Pus bumps

Folliculitis. Caused by an infection around the hair follicle, the opening on the skin from which the hair grows, and presents as: 

  • Multiple pink bumps 
  • Pus bumps

Furuncle. “When the infection travels deeper into the hair follicle, this is called a furuncle — commonly known as a boil," says Dr. Presto, “which is a painful, red bump at the site of infection."

Cellulitis. This occurs if the staph infection gets into a deeper layer of skin. 

It is important to identify cellulitis early since it can spread rapidly to other parts of the body. Symptoms at the site of the infection include: 

  • Redness in an area that tends to expand 
  • Swollen glands or lymph nodes 
  • Warmth and pain at the site of infection  
  • Fever or chills

I think I have a staph infection. Should I be nervous? 

“Most staph infections are local infections on a particular area of skin and do not cause internal symptoms,” explains Dr. Hart. “They are a nuisance but not particularly dangerous.” These types of infections can be treated easily with topical or oral antibiotics.

If the staph infection invades deeper into the skin or blood, however, it can be very serious. If you're showing signs of infection along with fever or chills, call your doctor immediately or walk into your neighborhood CityMD for treatment. 

Treatment for staph infections 

  • Oral or topical antibiotics clear the majority of staph infections. Your health care provider may perform tests to identify what particular staph bacteria is causing your infection and choose a medicine that will work best for you. 
  • IV antibiotics are needed for serious staph infections or those that are unresponsive to oral antibiotics. 
  • Drainage of a bump with pus also known as a boil. Your provider may make an incision into the sore to drain the fluid and thoroughly clean the area.

How do I avoid a staph infection? 

“Whether at the gym, pool, or virtually anywhere, staph infections can spread through objects or from contact with another person,” warns Dr. Presto. Follow these simple steps to reduce your chances of picking up a staph infection:

  • Wash your hands thoroughly 
  • Wear loose-fitting, moisture-wicking clothes 
  • Always wear shoes 
  • Disinfect equipment before and after use 
  • Keep open wounds covered 
  • Shower after working out 
  • Avoid sharing personal items, including razors, towels, and athletic equipment.

If you are showing signs of a staph infection, walk right in to your nearest CityMD, visit your Summit Health primary care physician, or dermatologist for a diagnosis and treatment. Remember, cellulitis can be dangerous and spread rapidly to other areas of the body if it is not treated early.