Herpes Gladiatorium Is One Disease That Goes to the Wrestling Mat

Wrestlers are sometimes prone to a type of herpes called "mat herpes" or Herpes Gladiatorium Karl Gehring/The Denver Post via Getty Images

Wrestlers expect to develop discipline and strength when they pursue their sport, but some are getting more than they bargained for: a form of herpes. Turns out those rubber wrestling mats are more than just a soft place to land during a takedown — they can harbor and transmit some pretty nasty germs.

Herpes gladiatorium, also known in wrestling circles as “mat herpes,” usually affects wrestlers by way of a cluster of blisters on the face, neck, trunk, arms and legs. It is incurable and quite painful, much like the genital variety.

"[H. gladiatorium] occurs when the virus infects through traumatic breaks anywhere on the skin during wrestling," explains Dr. Amesh Adalja, an infectious disease physician at the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center in an email interview. However, dermatologist Dr. Tsippora Shainhouse  adds via email, “This is the same herpes that can be contracted as an STD. The reason it [the genital type] is an STD is because it is transmitted by skin-to-skin contact during sex.”

There are two types of the herpes simplex virus (HSV): HSV-1 and HSV-2. H. gladiatorium is typically caused by HSV-1. “Classically, HSV-1 is the type that is found in 'cold sores' on the lip, nose or face, and HSV-2 is the type that causes sores on the genitals or buttocks,” Shainhouse explains. “However, either virus strain can produce sores on either body part. With oral sex being so common, the two strains obviously come in contact with both surfaces.” Since skin-to-skin contact (or perhaps in this case, skin-to-mat contact) is the transmission method of choice for either type of herpes, it doesn't really matter which strain a wrestler encounters, as the result will be the same.

The virus recently made headlines thanks to the plight of California teen Blake Flovin, who broke out in a rash just days after a meet. The outbreak unfortunately occurred immediately before the state wrestling championship tournament. Flovin's family attempted to have the tournament postponed to ensure the safety of the other wrestlers, some of whom had wrestled Blake after he'd been exposed, but before diagnosis. (The meet went on.)

Not Just for Wrestlers

Although the herpes diagnosis came as a major shock to Flovin and his family (and no doubt, many others), it's surprisingly common. Here's the rub – the risk is not just among wrestlers. “Any sport that involves skin-to-skin contact could spread herpes in this manner,” Adalja says.

“You can get it from a helmet,” emails New York City-based dermatologist and “Skin Rules” author Dr. Debra Jaliman. “I've also seen it from yoga mats.” Fortunately, herpes seems to be less prevalent among the downward-dog population than wrestlers. Dr. Shainhouse says, “I haven't seen HSV contracted from dirty, shared yoga mats, but it could happen.” The virus, she says, can survive on dry, inanimate surfaces anywhere from several hours to eight weeks.

Herpes treatment has come a long way in recent years, but still lacks a cure. “It is treatable with antiviral therapy, but all herpes viruses have the capacity to remain dormant in the body and recur,” Adalja says. Symptoms include pain, itching and social life-inhibiting skin lesions. It can take eight days, possibly longer for lesions to appear, and might be preceded by swollen lymph nodes, fever, skin tingling and sore throat.

Indeed, much of the responsibility for preventing the spread of “mat herpes” falls squarely on the shoulders of the facility providing the equipment. “The gym itself should make a habit of washing down mats and shared equipment after use with antiviral wipes or dilute bleach,” Shainhouse says. 

If your sport or exercise program involves a mat, you may want to take advantage of that bottle of cleaner and paper towels hanging out in your gym. Or bring your own mat.