Chris Ledingham

Written by: Phillip Conatser & Chris Ledingham, University of Texas Brownsville

Should you think twice about the next ball or piece of sports equipment you touch in class? Most of us don’t even think about what could be left on the equipment we use; we just grab a ball and go. However, as educators we should be a little more vigilant in preventing exposure to infectious diseases.

Phillip Conatser

In recent years the threat of infectious disease outbreaks in schools has garnered the attention of national media. Whether the H1N1 flu, infectious mononucleosis, Methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus (flesh eating bacteria), or pink-eye, the school environment is one that needs to take some specific action in preventing disease. In the physical education setting, this may be a more daunting task because students often share equipment and come in direct contact with one another; further, there is an increased threat of injures. The authors offer some simple tips that, if followed, will minimize the chance of a disease transmission.

While there are numerous infectious diseases out there, and many districts have well-developed (1,000 + pages) specific guidelines on how to respond to these diseases individually, the main question many physical educators may ask is “Where do I start?” The answer, although simplistic, is educators should always follow the “universal precautions.” Universal precautions refer to the technique commonly used by medical professionals to limit exposure to infectious diseases, and it starts with the simple act of washing your hands. More specifically educators should do the following procedures:

  1. Wash hands before and after contact with an injured student or cleaning potentially contaminated equipment.
  2. Wear gloves whenever there is a possibility of coming in contact with blood or other potentially infectious materials (body fluids and tissues).
  3. Protect the body and clothes whenever there is a possibility of blood or other fluids splashing onto you. This may occur during treatment of an injured student or during the cleaning of equipment.
  4. Wear face masks and eye protection whenever there is a possibility of blood or other fluids splashing on the face.
  5. Properly dispose or disinfect all contaminated personal protective equipment in an appropriate container for waste.


Cleaning Sports Equipment
When was the last time you wiped down the bats, balls, gloves, and other pieces of equipment that your students use on a regular basis? While it’s true that many bacterial and viral diseases don’t live for long outside of the body, some may survive for several hours or even days. Therefore, periodic cleaning of all equipment should become standard practice. But how often is standard? What should you use to clean and disinfect the equipment? These are two questions that are not easily answered, but here are a few suggestions.

  • If you suspect that one or more of you students may be ill, or they are returning to class after a period of illness, it may be worthwhile to clean any equipment with which they came into contact using a mild anti-bacterial/anti-viral soap solution.
  • Make a point of having all of your students wash their hands with soap and water before and after class, and have a container of hand sanitizer available. Another idea is to remind students of good germ prevention and encourage them to keep their hands away from their eyes, nose, and mouth.
  • At a minimum, you should clean your equipment prior to storage, using a cleaner that will not degrade the equipment.
  • Bleach is not the best alternative. While it will kill many bacteria, it doesn’t always kill all viruses, fungi, or other pathogens.
  • When preparing cleaners, a 1:10 solution of anti-bacterial/anti-viral soap and water may be your best low-cost solution, but make sure you follow district and/or manufactures’ recommendations for mixing cleaners.

Cleaning Personal Sports Equipment
Uniforms, helmets, pads, and other protective gear are often not properly cleaned. While jerseys and pants get laundered, the helmets, pads, and other pieces of equipment are put away in gear bags and hung in dark warm lockers which become prime breeding grounds for bacteria. It is worthwhile to spend the time to properly clean and dry these pieces of equipment on a regular basis. Cleaning equipment not only kills germs, but it improves the smell of the equipment and prolongs the equipment’s life. Here are a few more suggestions:

  • Follow the manufacture’s guidelines when cleaning the equipment. If you use the wrong cleaner, this may degrade and affect the equipment.
  • Make sure equipment has ample time to air dry before storage; otherwise you’re creating a prime environment for mold and bacteria to grow. Store equipment in mesh bags in a well ventilated locker or store room. You may also consider using fans to improve air circulation.
  • If the equipment has been abused or is too soiled to clean, consider taking it out of service or replacing it.
  • Do not allow athletes to share towels, especially those contaminated with blood. Used towels should be placed in a properly labeled bin for laundering.

Dealing with Body Fluids
Setting injuries aside, it is near impossible to avoid contact with certain body fluids in the PE setting. During a good workout, our students will be sweating profusely, and while sweat usually is not dangerous, a mix of sweat with an open wound can become a hazard, as can a student with a productive cough and runny nose.

Following universal precautions is the best way to deal with these, but it’s not always the most practical. To prevent diseases commonly associated with body fluids like blood, saliva, and respiratory secretions, it’s your job to train your students in the best practices to avoid coming into contact with these substances. Practices like coughing or sneezing into the crux of their arm rather than their hands or out in the open is a good start. You may consider doing the following:

  • Set a rule of no spitting in class, regardless of whether the student is inside or outside. However, if they must spit, they should do so in a trash can or away from other students, not on the gym floor or water fountain. Remember, with physical activity students often need a place to spit, so designate containers or other appropriate devices near play areas.
  • Have an ample supply of disposable disinfectant wipes for students to use on themselves and equipment.
  • Do not allow students to share towels or sponges.
  • Clean equipment using the anti-bacterial/anti-viral solution mentioned above.
  • Encourage or mandate students to shower after class.
  • Make sure student injuries (cuts and scrapes) are properly bandaged before class or activity.
  • Properly train all faculty and staff on the proper techniques for dealing with blood and body fluids.
  • When treating injuries always wear gloves. If you have any open wounds on your hands or arm, you may want to have another person care for the injured student.
  • When cleaning spills, make sure you wear gloves, use absorbent paper towels, and properly dispose. You may consider purchasing good paper towels for possible cleaning because most school towels do not absorb well.

Locker rooms and Showers
Diseases like athlete’s foot and flesh eating bacteria love warm humid environments, and they often thrive in areas that don’t get cleaned thoroughly on regular basis. In most facilities the sinks, mirrors, toilets, and floors get cleaned regularly; however, other areas are often neglected. To prevent these diseases, make sure the following are in place in your facility:

  • Daily thorough cleaning by janitorial staff of all hard surfaces using proper cleaners including shower heads, dividing walls, and door handles.
  • Ensure proper drainage of standing water in showers and locker rooms. If puddles form in shower areas, have squeegees available to move water towards the drain or use fans to help dry the surface.
  • Mandate that all students wear shower shoes or flip-flops. This will minimize student contact with potential contaminated floors and help minimize the spread of disease like athletes foot.
  • Have fresh towels available and proper receptacle bins for the collection of used towels.
  • Have soap dispensers available, and make sure they are kept filled and cleaned.
  • Make sure benches, lockers, and other objects that students contact are regularly cleaned.

Person-to-Person Diseases
Having a clean environment is a great first step in disease prevention, but there are diseases that are spread person-to-person that need addressing as well. Diseases like the common cold, the flu, lice, HIV, hepatitis B and C, and cold sores (often caused by herpes simplex viruses) are among those that can easily be spread if proper precautions are not taken.

  • To prevent the spread of cold and flu viruses, physical educators should not allow students with such infections to participate in activities until they are well or they have been fever free, without the use of medications, for at least 24 hours.
  • Students with lice infections or suspected infections need to be identified and referred to the school nurse or healthcare provider for proper treatment. Students with suspected infections should not use or share protective head gear with other students. All equipment utilized by students with suspected cases of lice need to be properly cleaned with the appropriate cleansers. Note: bleach does not kill lice.
  • Students with active cases of pink-eye, while usually told to stay home until the infection is cleared, may still show up symptomatic to school. If a student is identified with pink-eye, they should not be allowed to participate in PE. Additionally if a case of pink eye is suspected, the student should be referred to the school nurse or healthcare provider for diagnosis and treatment.
  • Students with HIV or hepatitis B or C should not be barred from participating in PE. However, a proper first aid kit with appropriate personal protective equipment should be kept on hand in case of an accident. Students with these diseases should not take part in high risk activities (such as wrestling or boxing); however, educators should follow their school district or state guidelines. Remember to reinforce to classmates that they can’t contract HIV from competing in sports, coming into contact with sweat, having casual contact (such as handshakes), or swimming in a pool.

Anytime large groups of people work or play together, germs will be passed; however, being determined and vigilant in following these simple suggestions will help prevent the spread of unwanted diseases.

Happy New Year “Stay Clean & Stay Healthy!”


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