Oct 26, 2017
Stop the Spread
Mike Matheny

Bacteria and viruses are unwelcome members on any sports team, yet they are all too common thanks to the shared surfaces, equipment, and personal belongings in athletic facilities. Athletic trainers are charged with keeping these germs at bay. Whether dealing with infectious bacteria or an open wound, antimicrobial products are the key to keeping athletes healthy.

Antimicrobials for use by athletic trainers can be broken down into two categories: hand disinfectants and surface disinfectants. Hand and surface disinfectants can be further broken down into liquids, gels, foams, and wipes. These products are often sold under the category of “infection control” and are effective in eliminating bacteria and other microorganisms, such as Methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus (MRSA), HIV, hepatitis A and B, and streptococcus.

Athletes should avoid sharing towels, razors, or equipment because of the potential for exposure to pathogens. In the athletic training room, treatment tables, modalities, whirlpools, and other surfaces should be routinely disinfected.

Bacteria such as MRSA can thrive in warm, moist environments common to many athletic activities. Athletes should avoid sharing towels, razors, or equipment because of the potential for exposure to pathogens. In the athletic training room, treatment tables, modalities, whirlpools, and other surfaces should be routinely disinfected.

According to the Center for Disease Control, “Disinfectants effective against Staphylococcus aureus or staph are most likely also effective against MRSA.” To be sure, check the product’s label. Most, if not all, disinfectant manufacturers will provide a list of germs on their label that their product can destroy. It’s also important to use disinfectants that are registered by the Environmental Protection Agency (check for an EPA registration number on the product’s label).

When treating an open wound, an athletic trainer providing on-field care should utilize latex or vinyl gloves, sterile gauze, sterile saline, and other products to clean and dress the wound. Once the appropriate care has been administered on the field, a waterless hand disinfectant should be used if no hand-washing facility is close by. There are several options available, including gels, foams, and wipes, that come in small packages to fit in the athletic trainer’s sideline medical kit.

After the wound has been dressed and the contest or practice has ended, the athlete should be seen in the athletic training room for appropriate referral or a dressing that can be used until the following day. Often, this will result in bleeding onto an examination table. In addition to properly disposing of any biohazardous waste such as blood-soaked dressings or gloves, the athletic trainer must thoroughly disinfect the contaminated work surface. Although a diluted solution of household bleach will work for this, bleach can be tough on certain surfaces and stain athletic trainers’ clothes. There are many alternative liquids for surface disinfection available from the same vendors that sell other athletic training supplies. Most come in gallon containers that can be poured into a spray bottle.

Anytime athletic trainers are using a cleaner or disinfectant, it is crucial to read the label to ensure proper application. Important instructions include:

  • How to apply the product to a surface.
  • How long to leave it on the surface to be effective (contact time).
  • Whether the surface needs to be cleaned first and rinsed after using.
  • Whether the disinfectant is safe for the surface.
  • Whether the product requires dilution with water before use.
  • Precautions to take when applying the product, such as wearing gloves or aprons or being in a well-ventilated area.

When using these products, spray them on the contaminated surface for a manufacturer-specified amount of time, and then wipe off. If there was blood involved, the wiping implement should be laundered according to Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) regulations for biohazardous laundry. In the event of a large blood spill, institutions are required by OSHA to provide special training and supplies to staff members for clean up and disinfection.

An important element to consider when using a disinfecting spray is the applicator. Choose a product with a high percentage of fiber that is capable of trapping and removing bacteria from surfaces. Dense fiber also provides a larger surface area in the applicator, which accelerates and increases the absorption capacity of the material.

For the athlete, there are several antimicrobial products available for personal use. For example, wipes are useful to bring on road trips. These can be used to disinfect surfaces such as bus or airline seats, seatback trays, and restroom surfaces. Personal-sized containers of antimicrobial gel or foam are also very useful when traveling and should be used frequently when hand-washing facilities are not available.

Athletes, athletic trainers, and other athletic department personnel should all take responsibility for decreasing the risk of person-to-person and surface-to-person transmission of infectious agents. Frequent hand washing and use of antimicrobial agents are key steps in doing so.

Image by Senior Airman Diana M. Cossaboom

Mike Matheny, MS, ATC, has been Head Athletic Trainer at Ithaca College for 26 years. He is also a Clinical Associate Professor in the Department of Exercise and Sport Sciences. Matheny can be reached at: [email protected].

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