In recent months, the feared "super bug" methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus, or MRSA, has got the attention of doctors, clinics and hospitals.
Now, health experts warn that MRSA could well be lurking at your local gym or health club.
"There is no doubt that MRSA and other infections can be transmitted without direct person-to-person contact," said Jorge Parada, medical director of the infection control program at Loyola University Hospital in Maywood, Illinois. "Although it's low, it is possible to catch MRSA by using shared gym equipment like free weights or exercise cycles. The first step in preventing the spread of any type of infection is awareness of the possibility."
Most MRSA infections occur in hospitals and in other facilities, but an increasing minority of cases are occurring elsewhere.
"If we were dealing with something that virtually nobody had, then it wouldn't be a big deal," Parada said. "The problem with the MRSA epidemic in the community is you don't know when you're going to touch something that somebody with MRSA touched."
MRSA can survive for hours or even days on the surface of gym equipment.
So should you stop going to the gym? If you look at it in terms of risk and benefit, for most of us the benefits of exercise outweigh the risks of catching MRSA. However, there are things you can do to reduce your risk. For one, you should always use clothing or a towel as a barrier between your skin and equipment such as weight-training machines, yoga mats and locker room benches. Also, customers should insist that the gym provide antiseptic wipes to be used to clean equipment between customers.
Washing your hands frequently is another way to protect yourself from contracting MRSA. In addition, you should never share towels, clothing, bathing suits, combs, soap, shampoo or shaving gear with anyone else. Many health clubs and gyms are improving their cleaning procedures. However, consumers should ask how and how often high-touch areas and equipment are being cleaned. Also, if the club or gym provides towels, customers need to know if the gym washes and dries them in temperatures high enough to kill MRSA.