Young Athletes Prone to a Rash of Skin Conditions

Four young football players tumble to the ground in a tackle

Doing piles of laundry and managing the logistics of getting your child to games and practices comes with the territory for any athlete’s parent.

But there’s something else nobody told you about when your kid signed up to play sports: Young athletes can be prone to a rash of skin conditions.

The closeness that brings athletes together in sports such as wrestling, rugby, hockey and football can also create an environment for a host of contagious skin infections, even if it’s just transmitted through dirty towels or sweat left on close-fitting pads and equipment.

To prevent these problems, experts at Cincinnati Children’s, as well as the American Academy of Dermatology and athletic trainers, recommend that athletes:

  • Keep cuts and scrapes covered until healed. 
  • Wear shoes that fit and clean socks to prevent blisters.
  • Wear moisture-wicking clothes.
  • Don’t share personal care items such as towels, razors, combs or soap.
  • Wear sandals in the locker room.
  • Shower after every practice and game.
  • Wash clothes and towels after each use.
  • Disinfect sports equipment daily.
  • Refraining from full-body or cosmetic shaving, including the chest, abdomen, arms and groin.
  • Treat any underlying skin conditions, such as eczema, to create an effective barrier

As a parent, you can be on the lookout for changes in your child’s skin. Look for cuts, sores, redness, swelling and pus. These are the most common fungal, viral and bacterial infections and what to do about them:

Athlete’s foot

Players in moist, warm environments in sports such as soccer, basketball and swimming often develop this fungus on their feet. It causes itching, burning and flaky skin, usually on the skin between the toes. A medical professional can confirm the diagnosis by examining a small scrape of skin under a microscope. It is treated with antifungal medication.

Ringworm

If it gives you any comfort, ringworm, also known as dermatophytosis or tinea, has nothing to do with worms. It’s a fungal infection that often develops behind the knees, in elbow creases or the groin area. It’s a crusted rash that appears as round, red patches with scaly borders. Medical professionals can diagnosis it based on how the rash or affected area looks. It’s treated with topical medication, and sometimes an oral medication for more severe infections.

Common warts

Warts can be passed from person to person, sometimes indirectly, and often grow on the fingers. But they are most troublesome when they occur on the bottom of the foot. They form hard tissue that can stick out from the skin surface or be embedded in the skin, causing pain. A medical professional may recommend cryotherapy (liquid nitrogen) for freezing the skin, or they may recommend an over-the-counter medicine to treat warts.

Molloscum contagiosum

This is a big name for a common condition that causes bumps on the skin and tends to be harmless. Athletes can get this from sharing towels and clothing or touching infected mats. It appears as raised pink bumps on the trunk of the body, arms and legs. It usually does not itch and often goes untreated. Treatment can include topical ointments, scraping the papule away, or cryotherapy.

Herpes simplex

This condition common among wrestlers can cause skin lesions on the head, neck and shoulders. It’s primarily spread through skin contact and causes small blisters on the base of the skin. Medical experts can diagnose it by the appearance of the skin. It is often treated with oral antiviral medicine.

Bacterial infections

These skin conditions can include minor infections such as folliculitis (infection of the hair follicle) and impetigo (honey-colored, crusting lesions). More serious infections include abscesses and cellulitis (infection of the inner layer of skin). Signs and symptoms include red spots surrounding the hair follicle (folliculitis) to raised swollen and tender skin (cellulitis and/or abscess). Coexisting fever indicates a more serious infection and should be seen by a medical professional immediately. Treatment for bacterial infections involves topical and sometimes oral antibiotics.

One thing to remember is that if your athlete is having a skin problem, it might be a problem for the whole team. Always notify coaches, athletic trainers and medical staff when there is a problem. Many skin infections have a prescribed time course for treatment and limitations on play while skin infections are active.

Gregory Walker, MD, FAAP

About the Author: Gregory Walker, MD, FAAP

Dr. Walker is a pediatric sports medicine physician at Cincinnati Children's. His clinical and research interests include concussions, musculoskeletal sports injuries, inactivity in youth and sports nutrition.

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