How dirty are mouth guards? Testing reveals grimy side of the gridiron

When most parents think about sports injuries, especially on the gridiron, they tend to think about sprains, strains, broken bones - and even concussions.

But new research has exposed a previously unknown threat to athletes' health – a threat lurking in the form of dangerous bacteria and other germs hiding in the cheapest part of a football uniform, namely the protective mouth guard.

On any given game day, you'll find the Morenos watching their son on the gridiron at a north Phoenix high school.  

"Oh, I am always concerned about my son getting hurt. I just hope it doesn't happen, but I know my son is happy playing and we're happy watching," said Theresa Moreno.

She and her husband, Bernardo never miss a game. They're proud of their son, who loves football and works hard on his game.

When asked about the precautions to keep her son safe, Theresa said she was satisfied.

"I feel they have a good eye on their safety, overall, I am the one always watching him, looking at him when he comes home with bruises all over him," she said, eyes focused on her son.

Yet, while Theresa was aware of the general risks to student athletes, she was stunned by what researchers have discovered with regard to dirty mouthpieces.

"Oh, uh, I have never thought about that," she said.

After conducting a handful of interviews with student athletes around the Valley , it was clear mouth guard safety was not high on their list of concerns  – until we told them about researchers had discovered.    

Dr. Tom Glass, professor of Forensic Sciences, Pathology and Dental Medicine, studied protective mouth guards worn by football and hockey players.

He found the kind of germs that force him to wear gloves and a mask in the lab at the OSU Center for Health Sciences in Tulsa.

"This is the type of mold that we are dealing with," Glass said as he pointed to a strep and staph-covered petri dish. "This is the one that produces nausea, vomiting and diarrhea. So, when half the team is not feeling good, you can count on the fact it's one of two strains of microorganisms, both of which we found in the mouth guards."

Even more alarming, the OSU-HSC study revealed athletes are breathing in the kind of mold that is linked to exercise-induced asthma.

"Anyone running up and down the field breathing in this mold runs the risk of asthma-like symptoms," he said. "We found it interesting that these football players who were supposed to be at the peak of conditioning very often had to have some kind of bronchodilators."

Chewed-up mouth guards make matters even worse by scraping against players' gum tissue and tongues, opening the door for germs to enter a player's body.

"Uh yeah, I chew on my mouth piece, see right here it's actually flat but it should be going up and down to fit in my upper mouth," said the Moreno's son.

"I mean, yeah, a mouthpiece is part of the uniform and I just never thought to clean it," said one player to ABC15.

"I rinse it with water every day before practice," said another player.

"I've never really thought about bacteria in my mouthpiece," said one player while standing on the sideline.  "It is pretty disgusting now that I think about it."

Dr. Glass said some of the bacteria he found can lead to ulcers or painful breaks in the tissue. Left untreated they can result in a variety of illnesses, including infections.

"Wow, yes, I never thought of it, but I will be changing out my son's mouth guard regularly now," said Theresa Moreno. "You never think about something so simple, you know what I mean, that's simple."

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