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The Risks of Spa Treatments

Though indulging in a spa sounds nice, all also have the potential to pose not-so-nice public health risks.

Acute Conditions

Pregnancy: What's the Rub on Massage?
While off-limits in the first trimester, massage may actually bring pregnant women great relief in the second and third trimesters. But the type of massage matters. "In the second and third trimesters, women should specifically seek a pregnancy massage therapist and avoid massage techniques that involve long strokes along the legs or pressure between the ankle and heels," Horesh tells WebMD.

There's good reason to heed this advice. "There's always a chance that it might make the baby dislodge, or induce premature labor," explains Clayton.

Massage and Menstruation
The combination of massage and menstruation is a double-edged sword. On the downside, it can increase menstruation flow. But because it improves circulation, massage may minimize some symptoms of menstruation. "It can reduce back pain and cramps and diminish the feeling of bloating," Clayton tells WebMD.

Saunas Exacerbate Respiratory Infections

Some people find it extremely relaxing to sit in a sauna, a wooden room infused with dry heat that supposedly eliminates toxins as it opens pores and promotes sweating. But if you have a cold, a respiratory infection, or an asthma flare-up, it's not the place for you. "Dry heat from saunas can make it uncomfortable to breathe," Horesh says. On the flip side, steam rooms with moist heat can improve sinus congestion, asthma, and allergies, she tells WebMD.

Public Health Risks

Chronic and acute conditions aside, all spa-goers need to be alert to the potential risks that may lurk in the very spas intended to relax us. A report released by the CDC in 2004 showed that more than half of all public hot tub spas in the U.S. violate public health safety standards. Of the 5,000 spas inspected, 57% breached at least one safety violation. Poor water quality was the most common violation.

Poor water quality can translate into a breeding ground for bacteria. Indeed, outbreaks of community-acquired infections from spas have occurred. In one such outbreak, more than 115 nail salon patrons contracted severe skin boils from a series of contaminated whirlpool footbaths used as part of the pedicure procedure. The boils resulted from a fast-growing form of bacteria called Mycobacterium fortuitum. Of the 61 clients that investigators tracked, most required a four-month course of antibiotics. The average disease duration was 170 days. The outbreak was reported in a 2004 issue of the journal Clinical Infectious Diseases.

Just how prevalent is this bacteria in salon whirlpool footbaths? In 2004, investigators in California set out to answer that question. They sampled 18 salons from five large counties in different parts of the state. They found the Mycobacterium fortuitum in 14 of the 30 footbaths surveyed. Other types of mycobacterium were also seen. Results were published in the April 2005 issue of the journal Emerging Infectious Diseases.

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