When you put 22 of the biggest, strongest, fastest athletes in the world in a confined space and let them collide with each other at high speeds, a lot of things happen. And most of them are bad.
Broken bones, torn muscles, lacerated organs and concussions are just a handful of the inevitable consequences of a life spent in the National Football League (NFL). If you dream of making your living on the game’s biggest stage, fear cannot be part of your DNA.
So it’s a little ironic that 10 years ago, a microscopic organism known as methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus (MRSA) had players, coaches and administrators calling timeout and scrambling for safety.
What is MRSA?
In a healthcare setting, such as a hospital or nursing home, MRSA can cause severe problems such as bloodstream infections, pneumonia and surgical site infections.
MRSA is a bacterium that causes a variety of infections. On one end of the spectrum, MRSA manifests itself as a mild sore or boil. Dubbed “the super bug” because of its resistance to antibiotics, MRSA can also cause life-threatening infections in surgical wounds, the bloodstream, lungs or urinary tract.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) reports that MRSA claims approximately 6,000 lives each year. The majority of those fatalities occur in health care settings, where victims often have weakened immune symptoms. The other major strain of MRSA is circulating in communities across the U.S.
How do you get it?
MRSA is an organism that is common in the communities where we live. You can get MRSA through direct contact with an infected wound or by sharing personal items, such as towels or razors that have touched infected skin. But it is important to remember that you do not need to have direct contact with an actively infected person to catch MRSA. In that regard, MRSA is much like the common cold or stomach ache.
Activities that involve crowded spaces, skin-to-skin contact and shared equipment increase your risk of contracting MRSA. Sounds suspiciously like a typical NFL football game, doesn’t it? But athletes are not the only vulnerable demographic. Daycare workers, military personnel living in barracks, hospital patients and nursing home residents are also susceptible.
Six seasons into his NFL career, Brandon Noble suffered a knee injury that required surgery. That alone was not newsworthy. In the NFL, injuries are so common that a player who went six seasons without surgery would be praised for his durability.
What makes Noble’s story unique is the quarter-sized hot spot that appeared the day his stitches were removed. That hot spot turned out to be the first sign of a MRSA infection that would spread and, Noble maintains, ultimately end his career.
Community-associated MRSA has been identified among populations that share close quarters or have more skin-to-skin contact. Examples are team athletes, military recruits, prison inmates and children in daycare.
Symptoms of MRSA depend on where the infection is. If you have pneumonia, you may develop a cough. If MRSA causes a wound infection, you may experience a hot spot like the one Noble had. Other symptoms include bumps or infected areas on the skin that might be red, swollen, painful, or full of pus or other drainage. These spots are often confused with bug/spider bites or pimples. In their early stages, they are itchy, which is what draws your attention to them.
The CDC emphasizes that it is critical to contact your doctor immediately if you experience a fever along with MRSA symptoms. If your doctor diagnoses a MRSA infection, it is important to learn how to protect others you come in contact with.
How do you protect yourself?
When the MRSA outbreak touched down in the NFL, teams rushed to put safety precautions in place. One team brought in cleaning crews wearing full hazmat suits to disinfect the facilities. Another called in the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to analyze surfaces, review antibiotics records and evaluate players’ susceptibility.
You don’t have to take such extreme measures to protect yourself from MRSA. Here are a few simple preventive tips anyone can follow:
- Maintain good hand and body hygiene. Wash your hands often, and clean your body regularly, especially after exercise.
- Keep cuts, scrapes and wounds clean and covered until healed.
- Avoid sharing personal items, such as towels and razors.
- Get care early if you suspect you have an infection.
These organizations offer more information about protecting yourself from MRSA: