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Ask Dr. Jake: How Do I Protect Myself From Gym Germs?


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Jake Deutsch, M.D., is a veteran ER doctor and a contributor to The Daily Details. Send your health questions to Ask@Details.com. We'll publish the answers here every week.

About once a month, I come a cross a muscular patient with some kind of boil who has self-diagnosed his new problem as a spider bite. Invariably, I peel back a bandage and discover not an insect bite but rather a bacterial infection—and one that was probably picked up at the gym. Nine times out of ten, the infection is the result of the antibiotic-resistant super-bug MRSA. If treated with the correct antibiotics, it can be cured. (Side note: The irrational fear of spiders is a much tougher condition to eliminate.) But the best cure against all infections, of course, is an ounce of prevention. Here's what gymgoers need to know.

Wipe it, wipe it real good.
It's basic gym etiquette to wipe down the elliptical machine after you douse it in sweat, but did you disinfect it before you got on? When it comes to workout machines, playing the defense and sanitizing prior to hopping on is the best way to avoid germs. Antiseptic wipes kill 99% of bacteria. They are also free, so use them liberally. You never know what kinds of microscopic presents some dumbbell has left behind.

Let me see them thongs.
Flip-flops are the best defense for reducing foot infections, including athlete's foot, toenail fungus, and warts. Personally, I hate wearing them, but research shows them to be the most effective barrier when you walk barefoot to the shower. But keep in mind that all thongs have a lifespan. Get new ones every six months, keep them dry, and sanitize them—otherwise you basically have petri dishes strapped to your feet.

Medicine balls are the worst medicine.
A study on surface bacteria at the gym found that medicine balls are the worst offenders. Why? Because they're never cleaned. All sorts of body parts rub up against them, and no one ever thinks to disinfect these sweaty balls. If you can't disinfect them, cover them with a towel.

Hot + wet = dangerous.
Steam rooms, with their alluring warmth and moisture, are meccas for gym infections. Dense, wet air traps germs that cause colds. Surfaces where people sit and put their feet up are teeming with fungus. What's more, the mold in steam rooms may be exposing you to illnesses like chronic sinus infections. At the very least, sit on a towel. You've been warned.

Real jocks use detergent.
Bacteria thrive in sweaty clothes. Washing your shirts and shorts regularly is the only defense. Keep in mind that polyester is the most difficult fabric to rid of bacteria, so steer clear of it when you're picking out your gym clothes. And don't forget to disinfect your gym bag at least once a week.

Don't live hand-to-mouth.
It's impossible to work out hands-free. You touch the floor, the weights, the doors, the lockers, even the toilet seats, and at some point, you'll invariably touch your face. Maybe it's to wipe sweat off your brow or open your water bottle to take a drink. Each time your hands make contact with your face, bacteria is that much closer to making its way into your body. The best defense is simply to wash your hands—and often. It's the same disease-fighting regimen doctors use between patients. If soap and water are not available, use the wall-mounted hand sanitizer and a paper towel. Trust me, I'm a doctor: Just do it.

—Dr. Jake Deutsch is a New York City-based ER doctor. Follow him at @DrJakeDeutsch.

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Photo courtesy of Corbis
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