Should you worry about your child catching infectious diseases from playing sports?  How serious is the problem? The major risk factors for infection include skin-to-skin contact with athletes who have active skin infections, environmental exposures and physical trauma, sharing of equipment, and contact with objects carrying infectious bacteria or viruses, according to a report released online today from the American Academy of Pediatrics in its journal Pediatrics.

What can be done to prevent such transmission? The report featured an encyclopedic survey of just about all the known problems with disease transmission in sports that suggests some preventive measures that parents, sports officials, school administrators, and primary care doctors could institute to minimize this problem. Some sports with extremely close body contact, especially wrestling, rugby and martial arts, are most likely to spread infections.

These infectious diseases that can be transmitted by close body contact in or out of sports include:

  • skin diseases (impetigo and other staph aureus and strep skin diseases).
  • fungal problems (ringworm of the head, foot and skin).
  • infestations (lice, scabies).
  • viruses (warts, shingles).

The AAP emphasizes that the benefits of sports including improving fitness, learning sportsmanship, and challenging oneself to improve can override the worry of injury and infection.

So what can be done to minimize the spread of disease during sports participation? The AAP gives a long list of ways disease transmission can be lessened, this includes:

  • hand washing.
  • discouraging the sharing of drink bottles and other personal items in the locker room.
  • regular washing of equipment and uniforms.
  • regular examination of athletes for skin infections.
  • barring infected athletes from returning to sports until they are appropriately treated.
  • regular and thorough cleaning of contact surfaces, especially high-risk areas such as wrestling mats.

Of course, many of these problems can be encountered in everyday school and communal life outside of sports. For example, the best cared for children in close proximity can transmit lice,  and athletes in football and baseball are regularly on the disabled list for invasive staph aureus skin infections even under a much more rigorous cleaning in professional sports.

Clearly, the most serious problems are in the close-contact sports such as wrestling, and the most rigorous policing of the environment must be emphasized in these circumstances. The AAP reports finds that the regular cleaning of bodies, uniforms, equipment, and surfaces can go a long way.

But even before participation in sports, the other dangers such as serious injury, concussions, and the growing controversy of chronic head injury and long-term brain damage must be considered by parents, as well. This is something I plan to touch on in a future article.