Wrestling with Eczema

Most medical professionals would agree that wrestling and eczema are not a great combination. The mats are a cesspool of bacteria, and the close skin-to-skin contact creates the perfect conditions for a one-way ticket to a course of antibiotics. Despite the best efforts of my dermatologist, allergist, and parents, to convince me to opt for a different winter sport, I stuck to my guns and chose wrestling.

I wasn’t a great wrestler by any means, but the sport provided me with many memorable moments and lessons about caring for my skin that I still carry to this day.

How it all started

In 2006, I had just started my freshman year of high school at Detroit Catholic Central. While signing up for classes, I had the option to substitute my physical education credit with a wrestling class. I thought this would be a fun opportunity to learn a little self-defense and to follow the steps of my older brother Pete, who wrestled in high school.

As the semester progressed, I began to enjoy the class more than I previously anticipated. I learned some cool moves, made new friends, and had the opportunity to parlay the experience into joining our school’s regionally renowned wrestling program. (They currently have 14 D1 state titles — go Shamrocks!) I knew the upcoming season would be tough, but what I didn’t realize is that my skin wasn’t as invincible as I previously thought.

A breeding ground for bacteria

Every wrestler knows that the mats aren’t as clean as one may like to think. When you have 75 athletes sweating and tracking all sorts of bacteria and viruses from the locker room to the mats, it can be a challenge to avoid skin issues. Before each practice, our team manager would spray a bleach solution on the mats, let it soak in, and then wipe it down with a mop. Despite his best efforts, it didn’t get much cleaner. How did I know this? My biology teacher at the time did a culture of the mats and found they were a breeding ground for bacteria.

After each practice, we were instructed to shower and use antibacterial soap, like Dial, to kill any germs that may have made their way onto our bodies. I won’t lie; I often skipped this step, as the Dial was pretty harsh on my already inflamed eczema. Instead, I’d wait until I got home to bathe and carry out the remainder of my skincare routine. Needless to say, it wasn’t long before I got my first wrestling-induced skin infection.

Impetigo 4, Jeff 0

I don’t remember the circumstances surrounding my first impetigo infection, but I do remember that it was located on my upper lip. It took me a week to see the doctor because I thought it was just eczema—nothing more. A month or so later, I noticed a spot on my forearm. Once again, I thought it was just eczema—and even went as far as to adamantly tell my coach that was the case when he questioned me about the lesion. All in all, I must have had four impetigo infections that season.

Back with a vengeance

The next season (sophomore year) wasn’t as bad in terms of impetigo. I got better about taking care of my skin, but my new efforts didn’t prepare me for what would come next. One day, I woke up with a giant bump on the backside of my wrist. It was very tender to the touch, and it hurt when I bent my hand. Once again, I thought this was just another eczema issue, so I decided to carry on with my business. Within the next few days, the bump became a giant puss-filled boil.

I visited my dermatologist and was informed that I had another bacterial infection. After a stint with one of the more "typical" antibiotics, my condition had yet to improve. At that point, my doctor took a swab of the puss and sent it to the lab for testing. He determined that the best course of action would be to place me on a long-term dose of a slow-acting antibiotic. I was cleared after a few weeks and was able to return to practice.

Third time’s the charm?

Things weren’t much better my junior year. On a positive note, I didn’t get a skin infection. On the flip side, I tore my left MCL during practice. All good things come to an end, right? I took my early exit as a sign and decided it was probably time for me to hang up my headgear.

What did I learn?

Joining my high school’s wrestling team was a great learning experience filled with personal achievement and defeat. Here are a few of my takeaways:

  1. Don’t let eczema hold you back from doing things that you want to do.
  2. Learn to deal with the consequences of your actions: good or bad.
  3. It’s important to push yourself out of your comfort zone. That’s where the most growth happens.
  4. And don’t forget to take a damn shower!

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