Coaches and athletic team physicians have provided anecdotal information and case studies to support their beliefs that athletes may be unusually prone to illness during strenuous training or competition. Many athletes, in contrast, believe that physical activity improves their resistance to infectious disease. However, it is generally agreed that the stress of competition may make athletes temporarily more susceptible to infectious illness. A review of the literature shows that upper respiratory tract infections and skin infections are more prevalent in top level athletes than in the general population, particularly during periods of intensive training. Exercise induced changes occur in both the innate and adaptive components of the immune system; however, the relative importance of each component is unknown. Strenuous exertion and contact sports may compromise host defence both by reducing physical protection and by impairing immunosurveillance. Skin lacerations, vigorous sweating and maceration of the dermis impair the defence normally provided by the skin surface. In addition, adverse changes in soluble and cellular components of the immune system can increase susceptibility to infection. Persistence with strenuous training during an infectious illness can have deleterious effects; not only is athletic performance impaired, but the severity of the disease process can be augmented.