August 29, 2019

Avoiding common skin problems for athletes

Sun and warm temps encourage many athletes to trade stuffy gyms and fitness clubs for outdoor sports and training. While getting outside can be a literal and figurative breath of fresh air, it also presents risks for skin problems for athletes working out with no roofs over their heads.

UW Health Sports Medicine physician Kathleen Carr, MD, explains how athletes can avoid the skin problems that may not put them on the sidelines for weeks and months at a time, but still can irritate and annoy them.

Some of the skin issues below are more common to outdoor sports and exercise. Some occur no matter the athletic venue or month. But they all can be avoided or easily treated should they arise.

The problem: Blisters

  • What are they? Blisters form when friction causes the space under the top skin layers to fill with fluid or blood. They are are most common on the tips of toes, balls of the feet, and backs of the heels.

  • Who gets them? Blisters are most prevalent among distance runners.

  • How do I avoid them? Blisters can be prevented by having properly-fitted shoes, wearing breathable socks, removing wet socks and shoes shortly after exercising, and keeping feet as dry as possible when exercising.

  • What do I do if get them? Small blisters usually go away if left alone, and eliminating or reducing the friction-causing activity while they heal can facilitate this. Larger blisters may be painful and interfere with activity, and can be managed by cleaning the affected skin with alcohol and then using a small sterile needle (clean a sewing needle or safety pin with alcohol) to release the fluid. The overlying skin of the blister should be left intact to protect the skin from infection and aid in healing. Petroleum jelly and a bandage can be applied over the drained blister to prevent further friction while the blister heals. Redness of the skin around the blister and discolored or foul-smelling drainage from the blister site are signs of skin infection and should prompt individuals to seek medical care.

The problem: Sun exposure

  • What is it? Damage to the skin from the sun's ultraviolet (UV) light.

  • Who gets it? Pretty much anyone who goes outside without taking proper precautions, even when the sun isn't shining. We usually associate sunburn with sunny, warm weather, but is important to remember that your skin is exposed to harmful UV rays even on cloudy days and in the winter.

  • How do I avoid it? The most effective sun protection is clothing and hats. There are lightweight and breathable products that can be worn during exercise in the warm weather. The American Academy of Dermatology recommends SPF 30 or higher sunscreen that is broad spectrum (protects from both UVA and UVB rays) and water-resistant.

    Sunscreen can no longer claim to be waterproof or sweatproof. It should be applied to all bare skin at least 15 minutes before going outdoors so that it absorbs before sun exposure, paying attention to frequently forgotten areas including the scalp (for those with hair loss), neck, ears and tops of feet. Use a lip balm with SPF of at least 15 to protect your lips. If you plan to exercise outdoors for more than two hours, sunscreen should be re-applied.

The problem: Acne mechanica (sports-induced acne)

  • What is it? Groups of red bumps on the skin caused by skin being covered up by clothes or gear and rubbing.

  • Who gets it? People who wear spandex when exercising or sports-related protective equipment such as shoulder pads for football and lacrosse players or straps for football, golf, hockey, lacrosse and equestrian participants. People with pre-existing acne are more prone, but it occurs in people without acne, as well.

  • How can I avoid it? Wear cotton undergarments between the skin and equipment to reduce contact between the skin and the irritating object. Cleaning clothing and equipment regularly and letting it dry completely in between exercise bouts may be helpful in preventing this rash.

  • What do I do if I get it? Bathing shortly after exercise may reduce the severity of the rash. Typical over-the-counter acne medications such as benzoyl peroxide can be used, as well as prescription acne medications.

The problem: Athlete's foot

  • What is it? A skin infection caused by fungus. Infections are spread from person to person or via contact with surfaces that infected people have touched, such as locker room floors and exercise equipment. The typical appearance of athlete’s foot is red, scaly skin in the web spaces of the toes and on the soles of the feet.

  • Who gets it? The fungus thrives on warm, moist areas of the body. Athletes with sweaty feet - so most athletes - are at risk to some degree.

  • How can I avoid it? The risk of infection can be reduced by:

  1. Wearing moisture-wicking socks

  2. Washing and thoroughly drying feet after exercise

  3. Wearing sandals in wet public places such as locker rooms

  4. Keeping cuts and scrapes clean and covered with a bandage until healed

  5. Not sharing personal care items such as towels, soaps and razors

  6. Washing exercise clothing after every use

  • What do I do if I get it? Topical anti-fungal creams or lotions are effective most of the time, and can take up to four weeks. Occasionally, oral medication is necessary if the infection is not improving with topicals.

The problem: Turf burn

  • What is it? A scrape or abrasion of the skin that occurs from friction with the ground, whether it’s grass, turf, a basketball court, sand or pavement.

  • Who gets it? People who play basketball, football, soccer, volleyball, lacrosse, and many other sports. If you might at some point end up on the turf, voluntarily or involuntarily, you might get turf burn.

  • How can I avoid it? Wearing padding on commonly affected areas, particularly knees and elbows.

  • What do I do if I get it? Wash a turf burn thoroughly by first running water over it to remove dirt, turf or gravel, and then cleaning gently with a mild soap. Apply petroleum jelly to soothe the injured skin and reduce friction and sticking to an adhesive bandage. The injured skin is at risk of infection, so turf burn should be inspected, washed and re-dressed daily. Increasing redness or swelling around the area and discolored or foul-smelling drainage from the injured skin are signs of infection and require prompt medical attention.