Traditionally, it was believed that methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus (MRSA) was found among people with weak immune systems living in health care environments. But the MRSA superbug is now also showing up in healthy people who have not been hospitalized, and most vulnerable among these are contact sport athletes. According to a new study being presented at IDWeek (a forum for health professionals), college athletes who play football, soccer, and other contact sports are more prone to being infected and also spread the bug among their teammates.

Also called "staph," MRSA is commonly carried in the nose, throat, or skin of healthy people. It may be harmless while it doesn’t enter the body, but once it does get in, it can cause a range of skin and soft tissue infections. Most staph infections are also easy to treat with antibiotics. But overuse of antibiotics has created strains like MRSA that have become resistant to common antibiotics such as methicillin, amoxicillin, oxacillin, and others. Doctors often have to administer less conventional and more powerful antibiotics to treat them.

This two-year study found that contact sport athletes are more than twice as likely to be carrying MRSA as compared to their non-contact sport counterparts. Around eight to 31 percent were carrying the bug compared to zero to 23 percent of non-contact sport athletes. Among the general population, around five to 10 percent carry MRSA.

According to Natalia Jimenez-Truque, research instructor, the study shows even if athletes appear healthy and do not show any outward symptoms of being colonized by staph, they are still potentially vulnerable.

"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," she said in a statement.

The study followed 377 male and female athletes to analyze the time it took for them to be colonized with S. aureus, including MRSA, and how long they carried it. The athletes were from Vanderbilt University and played 14 different sports, of which 224 played contact sports such as football, soccer, basketball, and lacrosse, and 153 played non-contact sports, including baseball, cross country, and golf.

Monthly nasal and throat swabs were taken over the course of two academic years, and it was found that contact sport athletes not only contracted MRSA more easily but also carried them for longer than non-contact sport athletes. The main reason for this, according to the study, is because they have more skin-to-skin contact, and cuts and nicks they suffer allow the bug to enter the body.

The best way to avoid them is by covering open wounds and following standard hygienic practices like showering after games, washing hands and clothes, not sharing razors, and other personal items. Athletes with cuts should avoid playing till they are healed. The presence of staph in locker rooms and weight rooms suggests that MRSA is more often spread person to person — nevertheless equipment should be kept clean.

"Staph is a problematic germ for us — always has been, always will be,” said Jimenez-Truque, adding that 18,000 people die each year of staph infections. “We need to do all we can to reduce the risk of infection in those at highest risk, such as college athletes."

Source: Jimenez-Truque N, et al. Advancing Science, Improving Care. IDWeek 2014TM. 2014.