Ringworm – the most common parasite in combat sports

Brazilian Jiu Jitsu requires up close and personal contact. That, in turn, means that if one person gets a nasty bug it is very easy to infect an entire academy. When it comes to skin infections related to grappling, ringworm is the most common and annoying one people get. Luckily, it is treatable and preventable with just a little common sense.

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Understanding ringworm

The term “ringworm” refers to an infection of the skin caused by a type of fungi. Oftentimes, people think that it is a worm that causes the infection, when in fact, it is a fungus. The name ringworm comes from how the infection presents itself: taking the form of worm-like, ring-shaped lesions.

Ringworm is also known as dermatophytosis or tinea. Dermatophytes are a group of parasites that commonly feed on proteins found in the skin, hair, and nails, like keratin. 

The fungus can survive not just on the skin, but also on lots of different surfaces. Gym floors, towels, bedding, clothes, soil, and many other surfaces can house these dermatophytes.

Before we talk about the symptoms of ringworm, you should know that the infection can appear all over your body. When ringworm affects the body, the condition is known as tinea corporis. Ringworm of the scalp is tinea capitis and of the feet is tinea pedis. Even the condition that athletes call “jock itch” is actually ringworm: tinea cruris.

Not to leave any part of the body unaffected, tinea unguium can cause the nails to become thicker and discolored, with cracks appearing in later stages.

However, the most common form that appears in BJJ appears as red, scaly patches that begin as bumps. Later, they grow into the aforementioned circular, worm-like shape. If left untreated, it may even turn into several adjoining rings. An exception is the scalp, where they look like small, scaly sores.

One common thing about all ringworm lesions: they itch. Of course, just like with most skin conditions, it is vital that you don’t give in itching and resist scratching the rash.

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How can it be transmitted?

The ringworm fungus is highly contagious and can be transmitted in several different ways. Of course, when it comes to Jiu-Jitsu, person to person transmission is the most common. Transmission requires skin to skin contact, which explains why grappling has the most cases of ringworm out of all martial arts.

Touching objects that have the fungus on them is another common pathway to infection. While most people do not share towels and clothes in Jiu-Jitsu, they do share the mats. In other words, ringworm on the mats means that everyone is in real trouble. Ringworm can also transfer from gis and rashguards.

While not related to Jiu-Jitsu, it is good to know that ringworm also lives in the soil. Infection still requires direct contact with the skin, like standing barefoot or touching the soil with your arms.

Pets can also be the carrier of ringworm, even if they’re not showing any symptoms. The fungus can live on their fur and is easily transmitted through petting.

A diagnosis will require an examination by a dermatologist. A black-light is a great way of confirming the diagnosis, after an initial suspicion arising from the easily noticeable lesions. Sometimes, a fungal culture or skin biopsy might also be required.

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What should you do if you think you have ringworm?            

First of all, don’t panic. Ringworm is very treatable and is not a serious risk to your health. It is, however, easily transmittable, meaning you’ll need to be careful not to spread it around. If you do, it can turn into an endless loop with recurring ringworm outbreaks that will keep you and your training partners off the mats for a long time.

The treatment includes oral and topical medication, and they take a while to work. There’s even the chance they won’t be 100% effective in everyone. Some of the best treatments are prescription antifungals which are quite strong. Clotrimazole, Miconazole, and Ketoconazole are some of the topical creams that can be used to treat ringworm with success.

Oral medications include, but are not limited to Terbinafine and Fluconazole. Also, remember that you need to keep taking the medications as long as a doctor recommends, which often means even after the symptoms subside.

The hardest part of dealing with ringworm infection is having to spend time away from the mats. However, that’s not just for your own good, but that of the entire academy. Remember, that it is not just direct contact that spreads the fungus. You could easily transfer it to the shower area, or the mats, eventually forcing the entire academy to shut down for a while. Until such a time that a doctor clears you, you have to stay away from Jiu Jitsu.

Prevention plays a huge role in making sure you never experience ringworm. To that extent, several rules of thumb can keep you safe, and they all relate to hygiene. 

First off, try not to share anything in the gym, including flip flops.

Personal hygiene is essential! Shower as soon as possible after training. Even better, instead of using regular shampoo or soap, use ringworm shampoo and soaps, specifically designed to fight off all kinds of fungi. 

Of course, washing your gi and belt after every training session is a must and the same goes for rashguards and spats. Also, make a habit of washing your gym bag from time to time as well.

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For Gym Owners – How to prevent the spread of ringworm in your gym

As a gym owner, your responsibility to your students extends much further than just teaching them Jiu Jitsu. One such aspect is the health and wellbeing of everyone that steps on the mats of your academy. That, in turn, means your gym should be pristine, even on the worst of occasions. If ringworm somehow makes its way to your gym, you’ll have to take definitive and immediate action.

The first thing to do is disinfect the entire gym. That includes the mats, the locker rooms, the shower areas and just about any surface you can get to. It doesn’t matter if the fungus hasn’t made its way on the surfaces and is just an isolated case or two. If it makes its way to the mats, you may have to get rid of them and that can turn out to be a very expensive venture.

This only holds true for older, worn-out mats that have tiny holes, nooks and crannies that can be impossible to rid of ringworm. So act quickly. A whole host of commercial cleaners and fungicides will do the trick, as long as you’re thorough.  

Also, make sure all your students understand the importance of hygiene. If a student reports ringworm or you see it on them, immediately talk to your students. Explain that it is not dangerous, but requires treatment and a break from training. Also, talk to anyone a person with ringworm might have rolled with. Advise them to use a shampoo for ringworm or similar preventive measures.

Finally, make sure everyone in a gym knows what ringworm is. It shouldn’t be a mysterious or taboo subject. In fact, the more people that know about it, the better they’ll be at preventing it. Moreover, they won’t panic when someone with psoriasis (which is similar in appearance to ringworm, but not transferable at all) comes to train.

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Summary

Although treatable, ringworm is a skin infection that can easily take over a BJJ gym, forcing it to close down temporarily. The key to making sure you’re training in an infection-free environment is prevention and education. As a gym member, make sure your personal hygiene is a priority. As a gym owner, focus on education and keeping the academy pristine.