College athletes who play football, soccer and other contact sports are more likely to harbor the superbug methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus (MRSA) than athletes who play non-contact sports, a new study suggests.

In the study, contact sports athletes were more than twice as likely to carry MRSA in their noses and throats, and they tended to carry the microbe for longer periods of time, compared with athletes in non-contact sports such as baseball and golf.

Over the course of the two-year study of college athletes, between 8 and 31 percent of contact sports athletes carried MRSA at any given time, compared with 0 to 23 percent of athletes in non-contact sports, and 5 to 10 percent of the general population. [6 Superbugs to Watch Out For]

None of the college athletes had symptoms of MRSA infection, but carrying the bacteria can increase the risk of infection, the researchers said.

MRSA is a type of staph bacteria that is resistant to the antibiotics typically used to treat the infection. It can cause skin infections, and if it enters the body, it can cause serious infections of the blood, heart, bone, joints and central nervous system, the researchers said.

Contact sports athletes are at higher risk for carrying MRSA, or becoming infected with the bacteria, because they have skin-to-skin contact with other players, and can have cuts that allow the bacteria to enter the body, the researchers said.

Although previous studies focused on MRSA outbreaks among college athletes, the new study is one of the first to look at athletes who carry the bacteria without symptoms, the researchers said.

"This study shows that even outside of a full-scale outbreak, when athletes are healthy and there are no infections, there are still a substantial number of them who are colonized with these potentially harmful bacteria," study researcher Natalia Jimenez-Truque, a research instructor at Vanderbilt University Medical Center in Nashville, Tennessee, said in a statement.

Athletes can reduce their risk of carrying or spreading MRSA infection by practicing good hygiene, including washing hands frequently, and not sharing towels, soap, razors and other personal items, Jimenez-Truque said. Athletes should also cover open wounds and shower after practices and games.

The study followed 377 athletes from Vanderbilt University playing 14 different sports, including football, soccer, basketball and lacrosse, baseball, cross-country and golf. Each month, the researchers took nose and throat swabs from the athletes to test for MRSA bacteria.

The study was presented today (Oct. 9) at IDWeek 2014, the annual meeting of the Infectious Diseases Society of America (IDSA), the Society for Healthcare Epidemiology of America (SHEA), the HIV Medicine Association (HIVMA) and the Pediatric Infectious Diseases Society.

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