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Avoiding Infections

Staying Healthy, Performing Well

Warren B. Howe, MD

Practice Essentials Series Editors:
Kimberly G. Harmon, MD; Aaron Rubin, MD


Staying healthy will help you perform your best at sports and help keep other players healthy, too. Getting the benefits of exercise while minimizing the risks of infection is the goal. Here are some of the things you need to know to ward off contagious diseases while exercising.

Q. Does exercise reduce my risk of getting colds and other infectious illnesses?

A. Perhaps. Some studies seem to show that regular, moderate exercise can improve resistance and immunity to colds and upper respiratory infections, although strenuous exercise may weaken your immune system for a short time.

Q. Can I exercise when I am sick?

A. If the symptoms are mild, probably yes. If the symptoms are all located above the neck (stuffiness, mild sore throat, itchy eyes, etc) and do not worsen with mild exercise, participation in exercise and sports is safe. If, however, the symptoms are severe, below the neck, or generalized (such as fever, muscle aches, productive cough, vomiting, or diarrhea) it is better to rest until the symptoms are gone, and then gradually return to your previous level of exercise.

Q. What can I do to reduce the risk of getting sick?

A. A simple action is most effective: Wash hands frequently! Always wash your hands with soap and water, especially before you eat and after you go to the bathroom. In addition: Try to keep your hands away from your mouth, nose, or eyes. Germs on your hands will transfer to moist areas and then will multiply rapidly. Avoid close contact with people who are ill, small children, and large crowds, when possible. Touch common surfaces in public areas, such as countertops or doorknobs, as little as possible. Don't share water bottles, sports drinks, or soda cans. Don't share personal items, such as toothbrushes, mouth guards, or cosmetics. Keep athletic clothing clean, wash it frequently, and do not share it with others. Get enough sleep and rest. Avoid exercising while badly fatigued. Eat a balanced diet. Be sure to wash fruits and vegetables before eating or peeling. Avoid undercooked meats and foods that have not been kept properly hot or cold before serving. Use only clean utensils.

Q. What should I do if I'm sick?

A. By acting responsibly, you can avoid spreading germs so other people won't get sick. Cover your nose and mouth when you cough or sneeze, then wash your hands! Keep tissues handy and dispose of them properly. Keep skin scrapes, cuts, and wounds properly bandaged. Report any unusual rashes or skin eruptions to your coach, team doctor, or family doctor right away. You may need medicine to control the outbreak and speed healing. Hiding it won't make it go away, and you could infect others. If you're really sick, stay home. Having one person miss practice is better than having the whole team miss a competition because of illness.

Q. Do adults really need vaccinations?

A. Definitely! Maintaining the immunity that you obtained through childhood vaccinations is important. Tetanus shots should be repeated about every 10 years. Adults should have at least two mumps and measles (MMR) shots. Hepatitis B vaccine is a good idea, and you may need other shots if you travel to a foreign country. Influenza vaccine is recommended for anyone who plays team sports during the flu season. Your doctor can help you decide which vaccinations are best for your situation.

Q. Do I need to worry about catching AIDS while playing sports?

A. The risk is extremely small, even if you are competing in a contact sport with or against someone who is HIV positive. It's is important to avoid contact with blood or other body fluids from anyone, whether or not they are known to carry a blood-borne illness. Experts think that the risk of acquiring a blood-borne illness is much greater off the field—by transmission through sexual activity, injected steroids, or other injected drugs—than it is on the field.

Defeating communicable diseases takes a team effort. If you know you have a contagious illness, respiratory infection, open wound, skin eruption or unusual rash, vomiting, or diarrhea, it is important that you isolate yourself from fellow athletes until the problem has been treated and has fully resolved. Self-policing of these situations is an undeniable contribution to the health of your fellow athletes. The inconvenience of not being able to play for a short time may help others to avoid experiencing any serious illness and disability that can arise from it.

Remember: This information is not intended as a substitute for medical treatment. If you have a medical concern, consult a physician.

Dr Howe is the team physician at Western Washington University in Bellingham, Washington.

© 2003, by The McGraw-Hill Companies, Inc. Permission to photocopy is granted for educational purposes.