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Top 10 Health Concerns for Olympic Athletes


Over 11,000 athletes are participating in the 2016 Summer Olympics and Paralympic Games in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, and they've got more on their minds than just the competition. The first Olympic Games to be held in South America come with some unique challenges, along with the usual threats to health and safety that every Olympic Game presents.

"Approximately 10 percent of Olympians get hurt during their days at the games, either while training on site or in actual competition," reports Scientific American. In addition to injuries, viral, and bacterial infections are creating a serious international buzz. Let's look at 10 health concerns each athlete in attendance faces this year.

1) Zika Virus

Brazil has been battling a Zika virus outbreak since early 2015. This mosquito-borne virus can cause birth defects as well as neurological problems. There is no vaccine or medicine for Zika, and it is especially threatening to pregnant women who can pass the virus to the fetus. Several athletes, as well as NBC employees including the pregnant Today show host Savannah Guthrie, will not be in attendance for this reason.

The University of Utah's Carrie L. Byington, MD, is leading a team of researchers supported by the National Institutes of Health to monitor potential Zika virus exposure among some of the athletes, coaches, and U.S. Olympic staff attending Brazil's 2016 Summer Olympics and Paralympics. Because so many of the risk factors are still unknown, Catherine Y. Spong, MD, acting director of NICHD, believes, "Monitoring the health and reproductive outcomes of members of the U.S. Olympic team offers a unique opportunity to answer important questions and help address an ongoing public health emergency."

2) MRSA Infection

Where there are contact sports, there around bound to be Staph infections. MRSA is a very difficult-to-treat type of Staphylococcus bacteria that enters an athlete's body through small cuts or abrasions. These infections are "resistant to commonly used antibiotics of the penicillin class," explains Sankar Swaminathan, MD, chief of the Division of Infectious Diseases for University of Utah Health. MRSA infections can spread quickly and cause "skin and soft-tissue infections, bone infections, bloodstream and heart valve infections, abscesses — both superficial and deep — postoperative infections, and pneumonia."

3) Contaminated Food & Water

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention cautions travelers to Brazil to abstain from street vendor food and ice prevent illnesses such as hepatitis A, typhoid fever, and travelers' diarrhea. The CDC also advises that people not swim in natural bodies of water and exercise care when attending recreational water parks and other places where bacteria and parasites may be found.

4) Dehydration & Heat-Related Illnesses

Rio's heat and humidity necessitate paying close attention to hydration to avoid the heat exhaustion and heat stroke so common during sporting events. Marathon runner Shalane Flanagan required IV fluids and medical attention after finishing the hottest Olympic Marathon Trials on record last February in Los Angeles, with race-time temps topping out at 73 degrees.

5) Hyponatremia

Did you know too much water could be a bad thing? When an athlete like Flanagan takes in more water than she loses during the event, a condition called hyponatremia can occur. Caused by excessive sodium loss in sweat or urine, this electrolyte imbalance is characterized by "headaches, nausea, dizziness, confusion, muscle cramps, and in severe cases coma, seizures and death . . . also signs of dehydration," explains Jeffery Cline, MD, a sports medicine specialist with University of Utah Health. "Use thirst as a guide and have adequate and appropriate fluids available to maintain hydration."

6) Swimmer's Ear

Four-time Olympic swimmer Jason Lezak holds eight medals. During the 2004 Athens Summer Games, he was very public about his own battles with otitis externa, or swimmer's ear. This infection and inflammation of the external ear is caused by the wet, warm environment that encourages bacteria and fungi to grow. Symptoms include severe pain, itching in the canal, pus discharge, and minor hearing impairment.

7) Concussion

Of the 287 injury cases reported during the 2010 Vancouver Winter Olympic Games, 10.5 percent were head injuries. Downhill skiers and snowboarders suffered the most head injuries, and 7 percent of all winter athletes sustained concussions - a number twice as high as the Summer Games.

8) Fractures, Dislocations, Ruptures, and Tears: Musculoskeletal Injuries

Olympic athletes sustain a number of foot fractures, dislocated shoulders, and ruptured Achilles tendons. During the 2008 Summer Games in Beijing, fractures were highest among taekwondo injuries, at 4.8 percent. Taekwondo competitions also saw the highest rate of dislocations or ruptures to tendons and ligaments, at 3.2 percent.

Athletes reported 287 injuries at the 2010 Vancouver Winter Games, and the most common involved the knee: 13.7 percent. Among the 2,567 athletes in attendance that year, 11.2 percent suffered injuries.

9) Overuse Injuries

A total of 1,055 injuries were reported during the 2008 Summer Games in Beijing. More than 40 percent of the injuries in sports, such as tennis, rowing, modern pentathlon, beach volleyball, triathlon, and weightlifting were overuse injuries to athletes' muscles or joints.

10) Facial Injuries

As you might guess, hockey players suffer more facial damage than any other Olympic athlete thanks to flying pucks, swinging sticks, and the inevitable brawl. Although she never went to the Olympics, in 2005 American female diver Chelsea Davis hit her nose and scraped her head on the board during the 3-meter springboard preliminaries at the World Swimming Championships.

But even though there is a an almost definite possibility of injury, Olympic athletes compete anyway, and isn't that what makes them so extraordinary?