NEW YORK (Reuters Health) -
College athletes who play football and other contact sports are more likely to carry antibiotic-resistant bacteria in their noses than those who play non-contact sports like baseball, according to a new study.
Being more likely to carry the bacteria, known as methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus or MRSA, is also known to increase the risk of getting the hard-to-treat infection, according to the researchers.
“This study shows that even outside of a full scale outbreak, when athletes are healthy and there are no infections, there are still a substantial number of them who are colonized with these potentially harmful bacteria,” said Natalia Jimenez-Truque, research instructor at Vanderbilt, said in a statement.
The researchers say the new study is the first to observe college athletes who are not part of a specific MRSA outbreak.
Unlike other staph infections, MRSA can’t be treated by commonly used antibiotics. If left untreated, MRSA can cause bloodstream infection, pneumonia and other complications, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).
About two people in 100 carry the bacteria, according to the CDC. People become infected when the bacteria comes in contact with an open wound.
For the new study, the researchers followed 377 men and women playing 14 different varsity sports at Vanderbilt University in Nashville, Tennessee. Each athlete had monthly nasal and throat swabs over the course of two academic years.
The researchers compared rates of colonization with staph, including MRSA, in the 224 athletes who played contact sports such as football, soccer, basketball and lacrosse with the 153 athletes who played non-contact sports, including baseball, cross country and golf.
They found that contact sport athletes were more than twice as likely as non-contact athletes to carry the MRSA bacteria.
During the two-year study, between 8 percent and 31 percent of contact sports athletes carried MRSA, compared to 0 percent to 23 percent of non-contact athletes.
The study also found that athletes who did not initially carry the staph infection acquired it more quickly and carried it longer if they played contact sports.
Dr. David Calfee, of New York-Presbyterian/Weill Cornell Medical Center in New York City, said the findings suggest that “crowded conditions, skin-to-skin contact and possibly skin injury are playing important roles” in MRSA infections in college athletes.
Calfee, who was not involved in the new study, moderated the presentation of the new research. It was presented in Philadelphia at a conference on infectious diseases.
Senior investigator Dr. C. Buddy Creech of Vanderbilt told reporters that the frequency of athletes carrying the MRSA bacteria in this study was “remarkably high compared to what we see in the general pediatric and young adult population in our area.”
Only a few athletes developed infections, however.
“What that tells us, we think, is that colonization with specific strains of staph in specific people at specific times are needed for infections to occur and therefore outbreaks to occur,” Creech said.
It is important to understand the characteristics of specific strains of this type of bacteria, he explained. Those include the periods of time when athletes are at highest risk, as well as factors unrelated to staph that may impact the risk for infection.
Jimenez-Truque said sports teams can decrease the spread of MRSA by encouraging good hygiene in their athletes, including frequent hand washing and avoiding sharing towels and personal items such as soap and razors, and covering open wounds.
Keeping sports equipment clean is also important, she said, although this study found little staph in the athletic environment, such as the locker room and weight room, suggesting that MRSA is most often spread person to person.
“Staph is a problematic germ for us – always has been, always will be – and we need to do all we can to reduce the risk of infection in those at highest risk, such as college athletes,” she concluded in a conference statement.