Absolute Beginners: Germs At The Gym

Here’s a super-fun fact: There’s a very, very common but nonetheless not-very-well known skin virus called Molluscum Contagiosum that you can catch during any number of fitness activities (sex included, if that’s your form of exercise). Molluscum is sort of wart-tangent, and it usually shows up as raised, flesh-colored bumps with a dimple in the middle. However, I have to stress the word “usually” there, because mine showed up looking like pimples and ingrown hairs, whiteheads included. I tried to pop them, I tried to wait for them to go away, and while it is possible to extract a white, waxy substance from the middle of a molluscum bump, I’ve gleaned that that is not pus, the way it would be with a whitehead. Instead, it’s an extremely contagious substance that will spread the virus to whatever part of your skin you touch next.

Fun, right? I’ve been dealing with this since February, myself. I didn’t take it seriously enough after my doctor diagnosed it during a physical, telling me that I probably got it at the gym. She prescribed Imiquimod, describing it as an ointment that sort of calls your immune system to attack wherever you apply it, so to only use it to spot-treat. I put it off, finally started using the ointment after a few weeks, in the meantime started tanning, and FWOOSH! – the bumps got mean, itchy, angry, irritated, and red. And I freaked the fuck out, because now I have gross-looking red bumps on my inner thighs.

Molluscum in adults is generally a sexually transmitted disease, but since I’ve had a monogamous partner for a good long while now, it seemed like my doctor’s diagnosis of the virus as having come from the gym seemed about right. Molluscum usually transmits from broken skin to broken skin, but it can also transmit through absorptive materials or water. A person could conveivably pick it up from the seat of a piece of workout equipment, or from a yoga mat. Then my dermatologist told me that it’s very common to get molluscum at a public pool, and I thought back to that swimming class I took (and quit) through the Chicago Park District at a public pool that was part of a high school gym, and everything suddenly made sense. Unfortunately, by the time sense was made, I had self-infected my sternum, neck, cheek, and abdomen, too, by scratching itches, not moisturizing enough, and not obsessively washing my hands.

It turns out that a lot of different skin infections spread like crazy at gyms, molluscum being just one, but also being one that requires “meticulous hygiene” to prevent spreading. Just to give you an idea of what that’s looked like for me, I use Nexcare waterproof bandages when I wear shorts now (which I really recommend, they are insanely adhesive); I shower top-to-bottom and least-infected to most-infected; I wash my hands after I clean myself; I lotion the most-infected parts of my skin, then wash my hands, then lotion the least-infected parts (because remember, it spreads to broken skin, and dry skin is broken skin). I clean my makeup brushes every few days, and I use one washcloth and one towel per day. I don’t re-wear dirty clothes, and I make sure that every time I do laundry (which is pretty frequent, now), I wash the hamper liner, too. Oh, and sex is off the table until it’s gone. Can you imagine going through all that trouble just to transmit the molluscum to your partner and then have your partner re-transmit it to you? No thanks.

All that trouble is worth it, though, because while molluscum can go away on its own, it can take two years. Using Imiquimod just speeds up the process. There are other methods, too – one is a serum called Cantheridin that’s normally used to treat warts but has a high success rate for Molluscum (and is also made from a beetle, which is pretty cool); another is to freeze or cut the bumps off. A dermatologist can do all of those things, so if you have weird dimpled bumps or, if your skin is like mine and the bumps turn up looking red, raised, and conical, get yourself to your doctor STAT.

I wanted to share all of this because the name “Molluscum Contagiosum” was unfamiliar and scary to me when I Googled it, and I assume it’s as frustrating and nerve-wracking to other people as it is to me. I’m past the point of anxiety over it, per se, and am more at the point of just pure frustration. Hygiene at the gym is really important for preventing situations like this: If I had showered after I swam instead of just ducking out and taking the bus, I might have been able to skip this whole debacle and would be shorts-ready now that Chicago is finally starting to have shorts weather. And, of course, it’s not only skin infections for which that’s the case – you can catch HPV, E. Coli, staph, strep, candida, the flu, MRSA, and plenty of other bugs during your workout, too.

So here are some tips for maintaining your health while you’re just friggin’ trying to maintain your health:

  • Always. Always. Wipe down the machines when you’re doing using them. ALWAYS.
  • Put bandages on any cuts, bumps, or scrapes before you work out.
  • Shower immediately after you work out, with anti-bacterial soap, and then change into clean clothes…
  • …But, of course, wear flip-flops in the shower.
  • Bring your own towels to the gym.
  • Bring your own mat. Seriously, we all know gym mats are not being washed.
  • Wash your gym bag, mat, water bottle, towels, hand wraps, boxing gloves, gym clothes, shower flip-flops, and whatever else you sweat on – frequently.
  • Wash and lotion your hands before and after your workout.
  • Shave after you work out (because shaving means broken skin!).
  • Bring a plastic bag to dump your sweaty clothes in so you don’t have to constantly wash your gym bag.
  • While you’re checking out your beautiful bod in the mirror, make sure to check for any new bumps or discoloration.

And most of all: Don’t let fear of germs keep you from doing what you love, and don’t let it stress you out too much. If you happen to catch something at the gym, follow your doctor’s orders, get rest and let your body heal, and get right back on the horse when you’re doing better.


[New York Times]


[Men’s Fitness]

[Fitness Magazine]

[Image via Shutterstock]

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