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What Is Herpes Gladiatorum?

By Clara Kedrek
Updated Mar 03, 2024
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Herpes simplex virus (HSV) sometimes produces a skin infection called herpes gladiatorum. The condition is also known by the names mat pox, herpes rugbiorum, scrumpox, and wrestler's herpes. Transmission occurs via the skin, and can affect wrestlers or rugby players due to the large amount of skin contact between participants in these sports. Symptoms include painful blisters that may appear on the face, neck, and arms. The condition can be treated with antiviral medications.

Typically, HSV is transmitted by contact between two mucus membranes. Sexual transmission results in recurrent painful genital blisters, and transmission via the saliva can result in blisters in the mouth region. This virus, however, can also be transmitted by direct skin-to-skin contact, and this is the mode by which individuals are infected, as well. As mentioned earlier, outbreaks of this condition have been noted among wrestlers and rugby players.

The symptoms of herpes gladiatorum typically involve the development of painful sores or ulcers on the skin. Most commonly, the lesions are found on the face, arms, and neck, and the blisters tend to appear in groups. Occasionally some affected patients can have other symptoms including a fever, sore throat, and swollen glands prior to the appearance of the blisters due to their infection with HSV. The blisters eventually rupture, leaving the skin underneath exposed, which could result in a secondary bacterial infection if these wounds are not kept clean.

Diagnosing herpes gladiatorum can be accomplished in a number of ways. Many times the disease appears as an outbreak, affecting multiple teammates or past opponents at the same time. The blisters typically do not develop until approximately a week after initial exposure, so understanding the time course of when the lesions developed can be helpful. In order to be absolutely sure that symptoms are due to HSV infection, a number of confirmatory laboratory tests can be performed either on the patient's blood or on a sample taken from an active blister.

Antiviral medications such as acyclovir can be used to treat herpes gladiatorum. It is important to begin treatment with these medications as soon as the first symptoms are noted in order to achieve the greatest benefit. Some patients can have a recurrence of the skin lesions, as the herpes simplex virus tends to lie dormant in parts of the human body, waiting to strike again at a later date. Recurrences can be treated with a short course of antiviral medications. If patients have multiple recurrences, they could take antiviral medications daily, even when asymptomatic, in an attempt to stop episodes from occurring.

Prevention is an important aspect of controlling the development and spread of herpes gladiatorum. Athletes participating in contact sports should be sure to maintain good hygiene, regularly wash their uniforms, and sanitize any surfaces exposed to skin. People having an outbreak of this condition should be excluded from contact sports to prevent them from giving the disease to fellow athletes.

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Discussion Comments

By ddljohn — On Feb 10, 2014

@ZipLine-- But herpes gladiatorum and cold sores are not the same. Cold sores only occur on lips and will most often cause a single blister. But herpes gladiatorum occurs on the body and often comes up in clusters.

When I had herpes gladiatorum, I had a fever, swollen lymph nodes and very painful blisters. But I've never had fever and swollen lymph nodes with cold sores. So I think that herpes gladiatorum is a much more serious form of herpes than cold sores.

By ZipLine — On Feb 09, 2014

@fBoyle-- Excellent questions. Herpes gladiatorum is caused by herpes simplex type 1, the same virus that causes cold sores on the lips. And once the virus is contracted, it remains in the body, although it is dormant (inactive) most of the time. It's the same with cold sores. Someone can carry the herpes virus but not experience a cold sore for a long time.

I was a wrestler in high school and got infected with herpes gladiatorum from other wrestlers. At one point, all the wrestlers had it and we kept passing it back and forth to each other. We finally got through it when a doctor treated us all at the same time and after we started to disinfect all the equipment and clothes frequently.

By fBoyle — On Feb 09, 2014

Which herpes simplex virus causes herpes gladiatorum-- type 1 or 2? And if someone gets this due to skin to skin contact during sports, will he always carry the virus from thereon?

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