Commentary

Should you play sports when you're sick?

By Dev K. Mishra, M.D.

We're getting in to that time of year when people start sneezing and coughing all around you. It's pretty easy to catch a cold or sinus congestion to generally make you feel lousy. And at the same time your team continues to practice and play games. You want to keep playing, so should you just try to play through it or should you sit out and get better (and maybe do your teammates a favor by not getting them sick)?

Here are some things to consider before deciding whether you should lay low or break a sweat.

Above the neck or below the neck. A guideline doctors have used for a long time is to see if what you’re experiencing is “above the neck” (meaning sniffling, sneezing, sore throat, etc.) or “below the neck” (coughing, aches, stomach pains, etc.). If you’re symptoms are above the neck then you can probably do a light workout on your own if you’re feeling up to it. However, if your symptoms are below the neck, skip the workout. If you have a fever, diarrhea, nausea or vomiting, now is the time to rest because you are already at a higher risk of dehydration and taking longer to recover from your illness.

Dial it back. Even if you meet the above-the-neck guidelines, you should dial back the intensity of your workout. Perhaps a light jog, some easy weights in the gym, or maybe just a flexibility session. You’ll want to be sure to stay hydrated, monitor your exertion level and keep checking in to see if what you are doing is making you feel better or worse than when you started exercising.

Be a good person and avoid your teammates. My recommendations above are really about working out on your own. But if you’re thinking of doing a team practice it’ll be a good idea to skip the practice. Out of consideration for your teammates, give them a break and don’t take the risk of passing on what you have to them.

One “above the neck” ailment is the common cold. The common cold can be caused by a number of different viruses, but the “rhinovirus” is believed to be the main culprit.

When someone has a cold the first three days are generally when they are most capable of passing the cold virus on to someone else. The virus is passed through aerosol particles when someone sneezes, and also by contact with the skin of someone who is infected. It’s incredibly easy to pass on the virus and young children seem particularly skilled at this, as any parent who’s had a child in daycare can attest.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) offers some simple tips to reduce the chance of catching a cold:

• Wash your hands with soap and water often.
• Don’t touch your eyes, nose, or mouth with unwashed hands.
• Avoid being around people who are sick (that means team practices).

Take care of yourself and take care of others by avoiding sports practices when you’re sick. There’ll be plenty of other training sessions where you can shine when you’re feeling good.

Key Points:
• We are getting in to “common cold season” where many around you will be sneezing.
• If you have a cold you should avoid team practices so you don’t pass the cold on to your teammates.
• However you might be able to do a light workout on your own as long as your symptoms are mild and “above the neck.”

(Dr. Dev K. Mishra, a Clinical Assistant Professor of orthopedic surgery at Stanford University, is the creator of the SidelineSportsDoc.com online injury-recognition course, now a requirement for US Club Soccer coaches and staff members. Mishra writes about injury management at SidelineSportsDoc.com Blog, where this article first appeared.)

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