TULSA - As the dangers of concussions in football continue to make headlines, parents, teams and fan bases have demanded safer, more effective equipment to protect players from injury in recent years.
But one such piece, if not used properly, can actually do more harm than good.
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At Bishop Kelley High School, team trainer Brian Coley spent nearly $900 on special mouthpieces for players.
"We have seen that using these will decrease the chances of concussions," Coley said.
And while that may be true, when mouthguards end up on the field, the bench or the locker room, players' health are at risk.
Dr. Tom Glass, professor of Forensic Sciences, Pathology and Dental Medicine, studied protective mouthguards worn by football and hockey players.
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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 mouthguards."
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 mouthguards make matters even worse by scraping against players' gum tissue and tongues, opening the door for germs to enter a player's body.
When asked about keeping their mouthguard clean, one BKHS player said, "Sometimes if it gets really nasty I'll just dunk it in some hot water, but that's about the extent I'll ever go." When asked if he ever disinfects his mouthguard, a lineman said, "No. It's football!"
The problem is you can't wash away the mold and bacteria. While mouthguards look solid, the study revealed the plastic is like a sponge that soaks up germs. The bacteria and mold don't just lie on the surface, they actually burrow down into the mouthguard.
Place a contaminated mouthguard into a player's mouth, and the food a player eats, combined with saliva, provide the perfect culture for organisms to grow and infect a player through the bloodstream or respiratory system.
Players who wear custom-made guards that fit over braces may be at even higher risk, Glass warned. "We found those became equally contaminated, if not worse, because they are so close to the tissue."
The best option, Glass said, is to replace the mouthguard "at least once a week, if not twice a week."
However, such frequent changes may not be an option for schools since most mouthguards commonly cost $5 to $7 apiece. With dozens of players on the Bishop Kelley squad, team trainer Brian Coley estimated the annual mouthguard budget of $850 would skyrocket to more than $8,000.
"Frightening. Especially when I know how much we spend on it -- and that we would have to spend that much every week," Coley said. "It would be very difficult to do that."
As a result, parents, especially whose children battle respiratory infections, may need to step in and cover the cost to help safeguard their young athletes.