Students and the Staph

By Christopher kerbis

I’ve certainly witnessed my fair share of injuries in grappling. This is due to the nature of combat sports. You would be hard-pressed to find any serious practitioner who hasn’t taken at least some damage. Brazilian jiu-jitsu is absolutely no exception.

In addition, one may think that most injuries occur in competition. However, it’s safe to say that most casualties happen during day-to-day training. Despite any personal inclinations, this comes with the territory. One must be mentally prepared that at some point, he or she may get hurt.

With that being said, we can certainly mitigate the severity and frequency of injuries. When we train intelligently and listen to our bodies, we can reduce the number of instances we are stuck on the sidelines. Therefore, it is our responsibility to make good choices. The last thing we want is to become ‘injury-prone”. However, there is another type of threat that can potentially derail progress. I am referring to skin infections.

Make no mistake, there are body fluids on the mats. This includes sweat, saliva, and blood. Each time we train, we come in contact with them. We are also exposed to microscopic pathogens that may be present with these fluids. This leaves us with the risk of possibly contracting a skin infection. These infections can range from the normally less serious ringworm to the potentially fatal Methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus Aureus, otherwise known as MRSA.

Now let’s be clear, I’m not trying to discourage people from practicing Jiu-jitsu. Nor am I trying to dissuade folks from training as often as possible. For the most part, skin infections are treatable and just like physical injuries, they happen. Nevertheless, you can also greatly reduce the frequency and severity with some good practices. Below is a list of prudent measures for practitioners to keep yourself and your team safe.

I am not a doctor. Always confer with your physician when making any health decisions. Nothing in this article is intended to treat or diagnose any condition. Nevertheless, the following is straight forward. The key here is prevention.

1. Shower immediately after training.

Now I fully understand that some gyms don’t have a shower. It’s understandable. There are many new academies that don’t have showers yet. In addition, I know some people are on a strict timeline. Just ensure that the first thing you do when you walk in your door I walk right into your bathroom and shower off. You may also want to consider using body wipes if you can’t shower immediately. The longer it’s on your skin, the greater your chance of contracting something.

2. Soap up head to toe.

From top to bottom, lather your entire body. You should be relatively forceful when scrubbing your skin. Be sure to pay special attention to any noticeable cuts or abrasions. Don’t forget to clean the bottom of your feet as they are occasionally neglected. When done, rinse everything well. The key is getting everything off your skin. Consider investing in bodywash specifically designed for grappling. They contain ingredients specifically designed to deal with the types of organisms we commonly encounter on the mat. A good brand I started using is Suplex Soap. The company is owned by Long Island based MMA fighter Charlie Campbell. Theres a few good brands out there but if you want great quality and desire support small businesses check out the link

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3. If you think you have something, get it checked out.

You can never go wrong with getting it looked at by a health care professional. I do understand that there are some skin infections that can be treated with over-the-counter medications, however I do not trust myself to make that determination. If you go to urgent care they can determine the best course of action.

4. If you are prescribed antibiotics, finish them.

If the instructions for the antibiotics say to take the medication for a certain number of days, do exactly that. All too often people discontinue their course of antibiotics when they see that the infection has subsided. This is problematic. You can in fact make your infection come back worse. It was described to me by a doctor like this.

When you take antibiotics the strongest and the most resilient of bacteria is the last to die. When you fail to finish the medicine, you leave a larger amount of this stronger bacteria still alive. If they repopulate, you can potentially have an infection made up of “tuff guys”. This often then requires you to take stronger antibiotics. This can be rough on your body. The more you take them, the more you can develop Gastrointestinal issues. In addition, repeated antibiotic use may result in resistance. Simply put, they may not be as effective the next time you need them.

Finish the medication as directed and be guided by your health care professional. They will let you know when you are no longer contagious and can return to training.

5. Do not walk barefoot off the mat and then return to the mat.

This sounds like common sense, but you would be surprised how many people do this. I am not only referring to newcomers. At a recent tournament, I personally witnessed a purple belt walk into the bathroom barefoot. He proceeded to use the restroom and then run back into the warmup area. By doing this, you are transferring what’s on the floor onto people’s skin. If you must leave the mats barefoot, wipe down the soles of your feet prior to returning. Some academies have cleaning stations solely for this purpose. If you’re using wrestling shoes for training, the same applies. Disinfectant wipes work great. Clean the bottom of the shoe the same way you would your foot.

6. Clean your equipment well.

One thing about Brazilian jiu-jitsu is you will be doing laundry. Oppressively large loads of laundry. This, however, is unavoidable. Do not re-use dirty Gis, shorts or rash guards. Always use quality detergent. You can also add a little white vinegar to the wash. I occasionally throw in some diluted tea tree oil but that’s up to you. Bottomline, if you wash everything for a full cycle, you should be just fine. You can also read a book at the laundromat.

7. Refrain from wearing your gi/no gi attire to the gym.

Once again, just like #1, I understand some people have packed schedules. I certainly can sympathize. However, there is a big difference between throwing on your stuff then jumping in your car and wearing your Gi on a NYC subway. Every time I see this, I pray to God they aren’t headed to my gym.

I still have friends who work in the transit system. The stories they tell me about what occurs in those subway cars will make you cringe. Police Officers one time even had to respond to a late-night orgy on the L train. The point is, use your best judgement. Try to get changed in the gym.

8. Cover your cuts.

Make no mistake, you have cuts all over your body. These are micro cuts that you can’t see. But the cuts I’m referring to are the ones that are clearly visible. If you have one, ensure you clean it and tape over it. Do this prior to training. In the event it happens during training, do the same. Be sure to clean up any blood you have gotten on the mat. Your gym should have disinfectant on hand for this. In addition, get used to managing your time between rounds. A one-minute break between rounds is ample time to clean a cut, tape it, and get back to training.

9. Clip your nails.

Just keep them short. This is to help avoid #8. You can throw some nail clippers in your bag in case you forget to clip them at home.

10. Consider discreetly telling your professor/coach if you contract something.

For the most part, you are not legally obligated to tell anybody your personal health information. With that, it’s still good to let your professor/coach know if you get something. This way they can get an idea of how many people are getting an infection. An outbreak of staph may prompt your academy to such action as a deep cleaning. I know some gyms have an emergency protocol for this. I discreetly always give my professor a heads up.

There are other measures you can take to protect yourself from skin infections. Truth be told though, the above listed are the most important. I can assure you that by following them you will significantly lower your risk. This may seem like a lot, but once something is a habit it becomes automatic. It is also important to understand that this does not only affect you. There may be individuals at your academy that are immunocompromised. This can be due to their age or a health condition. A skin infection can have a far more consequential affect for certain people.

Additionally, your gym may have a few professional athletes. Their livelihood depends on being able to teach and compete. Depending on the severity, contracting something on their skin may force them to withdraw from an important competition. This can mean missing out on a significant opportunity for bolster their careers.

Now the obvious caveat to all this is the inherent risk we accept when we step on the mat. You know what you signed up for. You and your gym can do everything right and it still can happen. However, don’t personally be the reason why the risk is higher than it has to be. Make these practices second nature. In the future, I may write about steps academy owners can take to keep their students safe.

The most important part of our sport is the actual practice. The intention of this isn’t to limit training. It’s so to do more of it. Addressing issues before they start keeps the focus right where it should be……. getting better at Jiu-jitsu. This is a team effort. For everyone,“the students and the Staph”.