Understanding Ringworm in the World of Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu

Last Updated November, 2023

Medical illustration of Microsporum canis, one of the types of fungi that causes ringworm
Medical illustration of Microsporum canis, one of the types of fungi that causes ringworm - CDC

As practitioners of Brazilian Jiu Jitsu (BJJ) roll on the mats, engage in close contact, and strive for that perfect submission, there's uninvited opponents that can cause more trouble than a well-executed armbar: ringworm and staph.

But what exactly are these pesky skin conditions, and why is it particularly relevant in the BJJ community? Let's dive into understanding these infections, how they can affect BJJ athletes, and what can be done to prevent and treat them.

Ringworm: The Basics

First off, despite its name, ringworm isn't caused by a worm at all. It's a fungal infection of the skin, known in the medical community as tinea corporis.

The name "ringworm" comes from the infection's classic appearance: a red, itchy, circular rash with healthy-looking skin in the middle, resembling a worm in the shape of a ring.

The culprit behind ringworm is a group of fungi called dermatophytes. These organisms thrive in warm, moist environments—exactly like the conditions on a BJJ gym mat where athletes grapple and sweat together.

A study published in the "Journal of Athletic Training" highlights the prevalence of skin infections in contact sports, including wrestling and BJJ, emphasizing the need for proper hygiene practices.

Transmission Tactics of Ringworm

The spread of ringworm in BJJ is a matter of particular concern due to the very nature of the sport. BJJ involves extensive physical contact, which provides an ideal route for the transmission of this fungal infection. Here's a closer look at how ringworm can spread among practitioners:

  • Skin-to-Skin Contact: Engaging in rolls and grappling means constant skin contact with your training partners. If one individual has ringworm, the fungus can easily be transmitted to others through the infected area.
  • Contaminated Surfaces: Ringworm spores can survive on surfaces for an extended period. This means that mats, BJJ Gis, towels, and even shared protective gear can become vehicles for spreading the infection.
  • Personal Hygiene Equipment: Items like towels, soap bars, or gear can harbor the fungus if used by someone with ringworm and can inadvertently spread to others if shared.
  • Environmental Factors: Warm, damp environments like BJJ gyms are perfect breeding grounds for dermatophytes, the fungi responsible for ringworm. Sweat and minor skin abrasions common in BJJ can also make it easier for the infection to take hold.

Staving Off Ringworm: Prevention is Key

Preventing ringworm in a BJJ gym involves several strategies aimed at minimizing the risk of fungal transmission:

  • Personal Hygiene: Practitioners should shower before and after training sessions, using soap. It's also important to keep nails trimmed to reduce the risk of skin abrasions and avoid giving the fungus a place to thrive.
  • Proper Gear Management: Wash BJJ Gis, rash guards, and other training apparel after each use. Drying clothes in a hot dryer can help kill any lingering spores.
  • Regular Cleaning of Facilities: Gym owners must ensure that mats and training areas are cleaned and disinfected regularly with products effective against fungal spores. All good gyms do this by standard.
  • Education: Teaching athletes about the signs and risks of ringworm and the importance of reporting it immediately can help prevent its spread. Encouraging those with symptoms to refrain from training until they are no longer contagious is also key - Share this article!

When Prevention Fails: Treating Ringworm

Treating ringworm promptly can prevent further spread and quicken recovery time for the affected individual:

  • Stop Training!: Continuing to train while infected can spread the fungus to others and potentially worsen one's own condition. It's critical for individuals with ringworm to stay off the mats until their infection has cleared up.
  • Antifungals: Over-the-counter antifungal creams, lotions, or powders containing active ingredients like clotrimazole, miconazole, or terbinafine can be applied to the affected area as directed by the product or a healthcare professional.
  • Prescription Medication: In more severe or resistant cases, healthcare providers might prescribe stronger topical treatments or oral antifungal medications
  • Environmental Control: Alongside personal treatment, it's vital to treat or discard infected items that can't be thoroughly cleaned to prevent re-infection.

By integrating these practices, BJJ athletes can help maintain a healthy training environment. It's essential to remember that if ringworm is suspected, prompt action is the best way to ensure a quick return to the mats.

Recovery time

Mild cases

Mild cases of ringworm, especially those limited to the skin's surface, are often treated with over-the-counter antifungal creams.

In such cases, athletes may start to see improvement within the first week of treatment.

Athletes with mild cases can generally expect a shorter recovery period, often ranging from one to two weeks. However, it's crucial to continue the treatment for the full recommended duration, even if symptoms begin to alleviate earlier.

Moderate to severe cases

For more extensive or persistent infections, healthcare professionals may prescribe oral antifungal medications.

These medications work from within the body to eradicate the fungal infection.

The recovery timeline for moderate to severe cases may extend to several weeks, typically ranging from two to six weeks. Athletes may notice a gradual improvement in symptoms over the course of treatment.

Staph Infections: A Closer Look

Staphylococcus aureus, commonly known simply as staph, is a bacteria that can cause skin infections that might look like pimples or boils and can be red, swollen, and painful.

In a BJJ context, the bacteria can spread through direct contact with an infected wound or by using contaminated items.

Ringworm itself does not directly lead to a staph infection, but there is an indirect relationship between the two conditions that can make individuals more susceptible to staph bacteria.

Athletes with ringworm can be more vulnerable to staph infections if the fungal infection leads to skin breakdown, providing an entryway for bacteria.

Vigilance in recognizing and treating ringworm can thus also serve as a preventative measure against staph.

Staph infections can range from mild to life-threatening.

When the bacteria burrow deeper into the body, they can cause severe problems like bloodstream infections or pneumonia, particularly concerning for BJJ athletes is MRSA, a type of staph resistant to many antibiotics.

Sidestepping Staph: Proactive Measures

Preventing staph infections involves:

  • Wound Management: Keep any abrasions or cuts clean and covered.
  • Cleanliness Protocol: Never share towels, gear, or other personal items.
  • Vigilant Gym Hygiene: Ensure that mats and training equipment are disinfected regularly.

Combating Staph: Treatment Protocols

Treating a staph infection depends on the severity:

  • Antibiotics: Topical or oral antibiotics are used, depending on the infection's nature and seriousness
  • Medical Attention: More severe or resistant cases like MRSA require immediate and aggressive medical treatment.

Conclusion: Safeguarding the BJJ Community

The prevalence of skin infections like ringworm and staph in contact sports underlines the importance of preventive hygiene and prompt treatment.

By integrating cleanliness and education into the core of BJJ training protocols, gyms can create a safer environment for all.

For athletes, understanding the risks and taking personal responsibility for hygiene can mean more time on the mat and less time dealing with unwelcome skin adversaries. Remember, if you suspect you've got ringworm, take a break, treat it, and come back to the mats only when you're clear.

By staying informed and proactive, we can all contribute to a healthier, safer BJJ environment where the only thing spreading is knowledge and skill—not ringworm.