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Everything Athletes Need to Know About MRSA

New York Giants tight end Daniel Fells is facing a serious battle with the antibiotic-resistant infection, according to an NFL Network report. Here's what you need to know about the "superbug."
Everything Athletes Need to Know About MRSA

Instead of battling defensive ends this week, New York Giants tight end Daniel Fells is facing a much more dangerous struggle with MRSA, an antibiotic-resistant bacterial infection that might claim his foot—and maybe even the rest of his playing career, according to a report from the NFL Network.

Fells suffered a toe injury, and then an ankle injury, for which he received a cortisone shot, according to the NFL Network report. After enduring a week of pain in his ankle and foot, Fells’ wife took him to the hospital on Oct. 2 with a 104-degree fever, according to the report. Doctors continue to try to save Fells' foot, while the Giants have taken steps to thoroughly sanitize their facilities.

If this sounds bizarre and exotic, think again: MRSA is surprisingly widespread in the United States, claiming more than 19,000 lives annually.

That begs the question: What exactly is MRSA? And what should the average guy do about it? Here's a quick primer on the potentially dangerous infection that every guy—especially athletes—should know about.

MRSA (pronounced MER-sah) is short for "methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus." In layman's terms: MRSA is a staph infection that has evolved to be resistant to the four major antibiotics commonly used to fight it, making MRSA extremely difficult to cure—and therefore dangerous for anyone who catches it.

Antibiotics aren’t just for fighting infections that people have already contracted—they’re also vital tools for conducting routine surgeries. “Without antibiotics, we could not perform many medical treatments,” says biologist Dr. Mayland Chang, Ph.D., who is studying potential MRSA treatments at the University of Notre Dame. “One could not have a hip surgery, or an athlete could not have a knee repaired.”

“Community-associated” MRSA is spread by skin-to-skin contact. It’s also spread by touching contaminated objects, although that’s only especially risky when someone who has already contracted MRSA is in an area like a gym or locker room.  “If drainage from an MRSA skin infection comes into contact with an object—like a towel, weight training equipment or a shared jar of ointment—the next person who touches that object may become infected with MRSA bacteria,” according to the Mayo Clinic.

When MRSA first emerged in the 1960s, it was confined to hospitals and primarily affected patients who were already sick. But since MRSA is spread through skin-to-skin contact, people who play contact sports like football, wrestling, and rugby are at especially high risk, according to the Mayo Clinic. It also affects people who live in crowded or unsanitary conditions.

Like a standard staph infection, MRSA generally starts as a red, painful bump in the skin—like a pimple or a bug bite—that might eventually become warm to the touch and accompanied by a fever. It typically stays confined to the skin, but may also spread to internal organs or even bones.

“Infections due to Staphylococcus aureus are now well recognized problems in competitive athletes who incur minor skin abrasions or cuts,” according to the Duke Infection Control Outreach Network, which is working with the Giants to reduce the team’s potential exposure to Fells’ infection.

MRSA resists most infection-fighting drugs, but the major strains of MRSA can be treated with some other forms of antibiotics. Doctors also typically try to treat the infection by draining any infection sites, rather than treat with drugs. Researchers are currently developing new drugs to treat MRSA.

MRSA is antibiotic-resistant, so it's important that facilities where it could be spread—especially locker rooms or hospital rooms—are sanitized well. Cleaning hospital rooms with chemicals like bleach and UV light has helped cut down superbugs like MRSA by 30 percent, according to a study from Duke University.

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