Three weeks ago, Northeast football coach Jay Austin thought he had an ingrown hair on his leg. Days later, the skin infection ballooned to the size of an egg.
Austin had it checked out and was prescribed antibiotics, which did not work. The infection became redder, more swollen and painful.
Austin ended up in a hospital, where he spent three days recovering from Methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus or MRSA (pronounced mer-sa), a staph infection that is becoming more and more prevalent in high school athletic departments.
"I asked the doctor, 'What's the worst that could happen to me,' " said Austin, 36. "He told me I could lose my leg. That's when I knew this was serious."
MRSA has become a frightening off-field foe that is difficult to detect, easily misdiagnosed and not always seen as a significant threat.
In some cases, however, it is fatal.
In September, two high school football players, Saalen Jones of Martin Luther King in Philadelphia and Alonzo Smith of Kissimmee Liberty, died after contracting MRSA.
In Pinellas County, Northeast and East Lake have reported outbreaks of staph infections among players. Austin is the only one known to have the more serious strain of MRSA.
Scott Anderson, a trainer at Clearwater High, said MRSA, which occurs most frequently among people in hospitals and healthcare facilities who have weakened immune systems, has become a serious public health issue because it is resistant to many commonly prescribed antibiotics, making it difficult to treat.
"We're trying to create more public awareness about staph infections and MRSA," Anderson said. "It's scary."
Infection easily spread
MRSA first can appear as a small pimple and spreads like most infections, through skin-to-skin contact, abrasions that become contaminated and exposure to contaminated surfaces, according to the U.S. Center for Disease Control and Prevention.
Working conditions for athletes, particularly football players and wrestlers, who share locker rooms and training facilities with teammates and are involved in violent games in which contact is commonplace, would be a likely breeding ground.
"We try to be as proactive as possible," East Lake coach Bob Hudson said. "We use antibacterial wipes. We dry out the equipment and pads each week. But infections can sometimes be a hard thing to keep under control."
Anderson said he constantly keeps an eye on any infection issues. He also uses a special antibacterial soap found in hospitals.
"We're really trying to reach out to parents and kids and keep them informed," Anderson said. "We have posters and meetings. And we urge players if they have any kind of scrape or bruise to get it checked out, even if it seems insignificant."
The CDC's recommendations to the public for preventing staph infections apply to pro athletes as well: frequent hand washing, keeping cuts and scrapes covered with a bandage, avoiding contact with other people's wounds and avoiding sharing personal items like towels and razors.
As for sanitizing equipment, many county teams are turning to Dan Wood, who owns a Sports-O-zone machine, which uses ozone gas to destroy bacteria and remove odor.
Wood said he sanitized Clearwater's equipment before the season and Northeast's last month after an outbreak of staph infection.
"I thought we had always done a good job of getting things checked out to prevent infections," Austin said. "Now we're doing even more to ensure it doesn't happen again."