Victory may not be the only thing a wrestler comes away with after taking his opponent to the mat.
Burley High School wrestler Jake Lake had the misfortune of contracting Staphylococcus aureus — a staph infection.
“You end up picking it up from the mats. We try to keep them clean, but it seems like that stuff just grows on the mats,” Lake said. “You may have a small cut or sore and you roll around on the mats and you are likely to pick it up.”
Wrestlers and their teammates are highly likely to be exposed to staph infections. Constant contact with other wrestlers’ skin, spit and blood makes wrestlers an easy target. Staph infection is spread when broken skin comes in contact with bacteria-infected surfaces.
When staph infection is first noticed on the skin, a small red bump similar to a pimple or a boil may appear. The bump can be painful, and infection may require hospitalization. In rare cases, staph can become resistant to antibiotics; these MRSA, or methicillin resistant Staph aureus, infections can lead to severe complications such as blood poisoning and death.
“For me it was not a sore. I got physically sick,” Lake said. “I had a sore throat and fever.”
Twin Falls High School wrestling coach Andy Keeter has seen a small number of staph cases in his wrestlers.
“We have seen a few cases of staph, but not the MRSA. MRSA does not occur very often; if it does it is almost guaranteed to wipe out your season and maybe your career,” Keeter said. “We got 20 kids on the mat here, and if one kid gets an infection it is likely to move to another kid. We had one kid that had a staph infection that knocked him out for two weeks and he came back and quit the team. Wrestlers have skin problems, but our big three problems are first ringworm, staph and herpes.”
The last thing on a wrestler’s mind as he slams an opponent to the mat is whether the mats have been properly cleaned or his opponent has good hygiene. As wrestlers return to the locker room, the risk for passing the infection continues as an exposed wrestler comes in contact with other surfaces and wrestlers.
“You have to keep cuts and sores bandaged and clean. You have to mop your mat,” Lake said. “That is the only way to try and prevent it.”
Kimberly wrestling coach Troy Palmer and his staff try to stress the importance of cleanliness.
“I don’t think that the wrestlers necessarily think about getting staph. We talk to them at the beginning of the year and during the season,” Palmer said. “We tell them to shower and use soap and take precautions. We try to keep the mats clean — that is where it mostly comes from, that and skin-to-skin contact.”
Taking time to clean equipment is an essential measure in eliminating nasty bacteria.
“We get a mat-cleaning solution that kills 99.9 percent of bacteria. We use it in a high concentrate and we are pretty sure that are mats are clean,” Palmer said.
Parents and coaches can help make wrestlers aware of the dangers of staph infections and educate them on proper hygiene.
“We recommend that the kids shower here,” Keeter said. “We start the season by telling the parents that if their kid comes home and he stinks to send them to the shower.”
In recent years Idaho has implemented mandatory skin checks to combat skin disease.
“The last three or four years the state has done a really good job to make sure a wrestler’s skin is clean. They check the skin for rashes and make sure there are no lesions. If a wrestler has broken skin, then he must provide a detailed note from a doctor saying that he is not contagious. Even if they are not contagious we still try to keep the area bandaged and clean,” Palmer said.
The National Wrestling Coaches Association and Molnycke Health Care advise wrestlers to shower with an antimicrobial, antiseptic soap that contains chlorhexidine gluconate (CHG) prior to a tournament. If that’s not reasonable, wrestlers should at least wash their hands, arms and face with the soap,and use wipes that contain CHG between or during matches when water isn’t available.
“It is important that parents know what is going on. Hygiene, clean mats and clean practice clothes are important,” Palmer said.
“It is just common sense if you are out there wrestling other kids and you sweat on each other, then go take a shower,” said Keeter. “We can clean our mats, but at the end of the day it is personal hygiene.”
Staph infections and other skin diseases can take a wrestler off the mat and lose valuable ring time. That’s a horrible experience, Lake said: “It kills you to sit out while other wrestlers get to wrestle. It just kills you.”
Michael Cole can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.