Dermatologists break down the common skin infections lurking in the gym—and how to protect yourself.
Photo: Thomas Barwick / Getty Images
Yoga farts. Cycling-class cries. Crotch sweat. Exercise-induced incontinence. The list of inevitable gym not-so-pleasantries is long and varied. While annoying or embarrassing, these woes aren't enough to keep you from getting your sweat on. (Totally worth it, even just for the mental health benefits of exercise.) But there's one more super-sexy potential side effect of going to the gym: fungal infections.
Don't freak out (or cancel your gym membership). Ahead, dermatologists explain five common fungal infections that could be lurking at your gym (especially in these particularly germy spots)—plus what you can do to protect yourself.
First, Fungal Infections 411
These infections are caused by the growth of mold-like fungi or yeast, which live on the dead tissues of your skin, nails, and hair.
"There are a multitude of fungi and a multitude of ways of contracting them," says board-certified dermatologist Joel Schlessinger, M.D., of RealSelf. But he says that fungal conditions fall into two categories: Some fungi live naturally on your skin as part of your skin microbiome (but can overgrow in certain scenarios, causing a visible infection or irritation). Other fungi can be contracted from your environment (think: the gym) or from skin-to-skin contact with an infected person and result in infection.
While fungal infections are typically superficial (read: NBD), they may be more serious in people with weak immune systems—like children, the elderly, and those with autoimmune issues and HIV, says Dr. Schlessinger.
"Sadly, gyms are the perfect environment for many fungal infections to grow and thrive, since many gym users come with their own fungal 'baggage,' so to speak," he says. "Plus, with so many people using the same equipment, the infections can very easily spread." Ugh.
If you think you may be the victim of one of these infections, you should get your symptoms checked out by a doc—especially if you have had symptoms for a while or haven't had this type of issue before, says Dr. Schlessinger. But if it's a recurring issue you've had diagnosed before, you can stop the symptoms early or proactively treat with OTC creams/sprays.
Types of Fungal Infections
Tinea corporis (ringworm)
Tinea corporis is colloquially known as ringworm because the fungus usually presents as a scaly pink quarter-size ring, says board-certified dermatologist Tsippora Shainhouse, M.D. So breathe. It looks like a worm noshing on its own tail. But it isn't actually a worm—it's just fungi.
"You can catch it up from any warm and wet surface such as the locker room, sauna, pool area, shared yoga mats, or stretch mats—or from direct skin-to-skin contact with another exerciser who has it," says Adarsh Vijay Mudgil, M.D., medical director of Mudgil Dermatology. But because it's so contagious, you could also catch it by touching a contaminated area—like sitting on or brushing up against a bench that hasn't been properly wiped down.
Good news: Wiping down machines before you use them will minimize the risk of infection. And if you do get it, an over-the-counter clotrimazole cream will clear it up.
Tinea pedis (athlete's foot)
You've probably heard that it's important to wear shower shoes if you shower at the gym. The flip-flop rule is meant to protect you from these fungi, which thrive in warm, damp environments like the shower. "I've seen hundreds of patients contract athletes foot from walking barefoot in public gyms showers, saunas, and/or steam rooms," says Seemal R. Desai, M.D., Skin of Color Society founder and medical director of Innovative Dermatology. (Related: The 5 Best Products for Foot Calluses)
And actually, athlete's foot is caused by the same strain of fungus as ringworm, says Dr. Schlessinger. "Similar to ringworm, symptoms are peeling, redness, sores, rashes, itching, or burning of the feet, particularly between the toes."
Wearing shower shoes and changing your socks after every workout can help reduce your chances of getting athlete's foot. "Just makes sure you keep your shower shoes clean by disinfecting with something like bleach regularly, and drying them after you shower so that the fungi can't thrive on the shoes themselves," says Dr. Schlessinger. (Related: 8 Gross Bathroom Habits That Are Bad for Your Health)
If you're taking a shoes-optional class (like yoga), he recommends wearing shoes until you get to your mat, and then removing them. (Better safe than fungal, right?)
Tinea cruris (jock itch)
Women can get jock itch, too. Caused by the same fungal species as ringworm and athlete's foot, tinea cruris is a fungus that grows in the folds in the body. So, due to the physical groin anatomy of the male (#science), it's more common in men. It looks like a red itchy patch that can live in the groin, booty, thighs, anus, or breast underbelly. (That's why jock itch is one reason why your butt might be itchy.)
Women who don't change their clothes after working out or who have had sex with a male partner with jock itch are most likely to get the infection, says Dr. Desai. (Related: 7 Side Effects of Living In Workout Clothes)
But you can also pick it up on any gym surface you'd pick up ringworm. "Drape clean towels over equipment you'll be sitting on to avoid contracting an infection. Just don't later use this towel to dry off after your shower," suggests Dr. Schlessinger.
If you do notice symptoms, he recommends seeing your dermatologist. But if you'd prefer to see your gyno because of the location, don't worry: They'll be able to prescribe an antifungal cream or ingestible too.
Onychomycosis (nail fungus)
This hard-to-pronounce word means fungus of the nail, says Dr. Shainhouse. You can get it both on your fingernails and toenails, but it's most common on your feet due to the warm environment of socks—where it's usually accompanied by athlete's foot. It's characterized by hard, yellow, thickening of the nails and occasionally even pain. (Related: What to Do If Your Toenail Is Falling Off)
You can avoid onychomycosis the same way you avoid athlete's foot: wear (clean, dry) shower shoes in the locker room, change your socks after your workout, and let your sneakers dry between uses.
"Treating the symptoms early and visiting a dermatologist on the first notice of itch, yellowing, or discomfort is key," says Dr. Desai. The doc can give you a topical antibiotic that can get the fungus under control. If you don't catch it early, she says you'll most likely get a prescription for an antifungal oral medication (such as Lamisil or Sporanox).
A yeast that lives on the skin, tinea versicolor actually isn't contagious. "It's something that everyone naturally has on their skin, and it usually doesn't cause a disruption to the skin," explains Dr. Schlessinger. But humidity, hormonal changes in the body, frequent sauna use, and hanging out in a sweaty sports bra long after you leave the gym could cause it to overgrow—which means it's more common in sweat fanatics. (Related: What's Causing Your Itchy Skin?)
"Tinea versicolor patches appear scaly and discolored and can be darker or lighter than the surrounding area. It is not often painful but may result in itching, discomfort, or scaling," he explains.
Some people will learn that they're predisposed for an overgrowth. Dr. Mudgil recommends that these folks shower immediately after exercising. "I also recommend they use antidandruff shampoos (like Selsun Blue and Head and Shoulders) as a body wash once or twice a week to minimize the yeast load on the skin."
How to Prevent Fungal Infections at the Gym
Next time you feel lazy about packing your shower shoes, remember: It's easier to prevent fungal infections than it is to treat them.
Luckily, those prevention to-dos aren't so bad:
- Disinfect the gym machines, yoga mats, and weights before you use them.
- Never (like ever) walk around the gym or locker room barefoot.
- If you have to shower at your gym (hey, if there's free shampoo, we're with you), wear shower shoes—and clean them afterward with soap and water.
- If you don't shower, at the very least, change out of your damp workout clothes.
Still freaked out? Don't worry too much. "In general, fungal infections can be treated with topical antifungal medications that you can get from your dermatologist," says Desai. If they're left untreated for too long, you'll probably need an oral antibiotic, but she says they're pretty effective.