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Surf Tips

Staph From Surfing

I‘ve been pretty lucky in that most of the cuts and scrapes I’ve sustained from surfing have healed quite nicely without incident.  I’ve cut my forehead open and been stabbed deeply by a fin, been smashed by a rail and cut by the rocks and coral.

So I was fairly surprised to recently be treated for a small skin infection that had nothing to do with a cut or scrape.

It started as a small red patch on my chest (actually my boob to be more precise) that looked like an inflamed pimple of sorts, although a whitehead wasn’t really present.  I thought it was acne even though I’ve never had a pimple in that area.  I also thought maybe it was a spider bite (I have been bitten by a spider that got trapped in my wetsuit before.  True story).  It didn’t hurt at all.  It appeared about the same time as another rather large pimple appeared on my chest so I figured I was just having a small outbreak from using my wetsuit.  I have no pictures because I didn’t want random boob pictures to be on my phone in case my friends went scrolling through my photo feed, but the closest pic I found to what it looked like can be found here – the only difference was that mine was smaller.  (That page is a page for MRSA but I do not know if that is what I had.  The photo provided, however, is closest to what my particular case looked like initially).

I monitored the area for a while but it really did not get better for about a week.  I remember joking with my friends that I had MRSA and they were giving me some friendly crap because I’m admittedly a bit of a hypochondriac sometimes.  I couldn’t show them the area because I didn’t want to be whipping my boob out.  However, I do know someone that DID have MRSA on his leg and he said it just looked like a pimple at first.  I had researched MRSA and figured it wasn’t the case because I’d had the thing for a few days and it wasn’t changing or progressing rapidly.  However anxiety got the best of me when I realized that although the red area (about the size of a nickel) had gotten slightly smaller it got more red and a little bit of fluid had drained from the area where the whitehead had been.  I think I had been showering and probably broke the skin causing it to weep a bit of clearish fluid.

At that point I had enough.  It was in the evening and I weighed the pros and cons of waiting to go see the clinic in the morning or just going to Urgent Care right away.  I decided I probably wouldn’t sleep that well as my mind would be dwelling on the issue and worrying.  So I got in my car and went to Scripps 24 hour Urgent Care office.  Thankfully the office was completely empty and I got through right away.

The doctor didn’t seem overly concerned, simply said it was a small skin infection.  The official diagnosis was cellulitis.  However he put me on a course of doxycycline oral antibiotic and mupirocin ointment.  He didn’t have it cultured or anything, but some research has told me that both those medicines are often used to treat staph and MRSA, and staph is often a cause of cellulitis.  After a followup appointment with my regular doctor to get more information he told me that a lot of these small infections are actually MRSA, and that it’s not as rare as it may seem.  Many MRSA infections are minor and treatable, but we mostly hear the bad horror stories.  Initially I had wondered (and still wonder) if the antibiotics were overkill; I’m not a fan of antibiotics unless completely necessary.  After all, overuse of antibiotics is how we ended up with MRSA and other superbugs in the first place.  But, I’m not a doctor, and I didn’t want to end up with a bigger problem on my hands.

The affected area seems to be healing well although it’s taking it’s time, and is looking much better so I’m not as worried about it.  I’m not sure how I got infected as there was no cut or scrape present on my skin there.  The doctor said it could have gotten in through a hair follicle or a sweat gland.  I had surfed Cardiff reef around the time I got the lesion (although there had been no rain around that time) so I’m suspicious that the dirty outflow from the lagoon may be a culprit.  This is despite me being rather vigilant about showering after surfing, especially at Cardiff.  I have definitely gotten a few sinus infections from Cardiff and I stopped surfing there for the most part, although this time it was where my friends were gathering so I decided one or two sessions wouldn’t hurt.

Another culprit could be the bikini tops that I use when I surf.  I simply rinse them but I rarely run them through the washer because it messes up the little foam triangle inside.  Well, I threw those tops out and bought new ones.

This post is more of a warning and public service announcement for folks to take unusual red “spider bites” or pimples seriously and perhaps see a doctor, especially if you surf a lot or surf in areas where there might be high bacteria levels.  I really didn’t know what a staph infection looked like or how it could begin.  I figured I’d probably need to have a pretty bad cut or something in order to get infected, but that doesn’t appear to be the case.

My days of risk-taking and occasionally surfing after the rain are certainly over!  And I’m going to be more vigilant about washing bathing suits and showering after surfing.  I’m surprised that people let their kids play in the lagoon outflow river at Cardiff.  I feel as though the public should be aware that there is a sewage treatment plant directly upstream and although treated, Cardiff is often posted as dangerous due to high bacteria levels.  It doesn’t need to have rained for Cardiff to have that classic “off” smell that it usually has.

Thankfully my case seems to have been mild.  I’m glad that I went to the doctor before it got worse – despite being a hypochondriac my health insurance is not the greatest so I have to conserve my doctors visits or it gets expensive.  If you’re a surfer, read up on staph and know what to look for.  More importantly, don’t put of seeing a doctor as these infections can sometimes get bad rather quickly.

Hayley Gordon

Hayley Gordon has been surfing for over 20 years. Riding both shortboards and longboards, she's traveled the world to surf but mainly sticks to her two home locations of San Diego and Long Island.

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Barra rock
Barra rock
5 years ago

Infections should be taken seriously. It doesn’t take long for them to progress to a deadly condition where the infection spreads into the bloodstream. If in a foreign country, see a doctor before the infection gets too advanced and emergency evacuations are required. Any red streaks found on the skin require immediate emergency medical attention. Do not die of sepsis because it is preventable.

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