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

The Risks of Spa Treatments

Public Health Risks continued...

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.

Short of swearing off pedicures and other spa treatments that involve immersing part or all of your body in heated water, what can you do to reduce your risk of infection at spas?

Do some detective work of your own before taking the plunge. "Look around at the spa for general cleanliness. Talk to people who have been there," McNutt suggests. She also recommends bringing your own equipment to avoid the threat of contamination. And, if you have any open cuts or abrasions, cancel your appointment until they clear. Any open area of your skin can invite infection. That's why it's never wise to shave your legs the day of, or even the day before, a spa treatment that involves immersing your legs, McNutt tells WebMD.

In spite of the potential health risks of spa treatments, most people who frequent them report positive experiences. Knowing the risks that pertain to you and carefully assessing the cleanliness and track record of a spa prior to making an appointment can go a long way to ensuring your safety and satisfaction. If you're uncertain about how a spa treatment might affect you, always consult your doctor first.

Just as in ancient times, many doctors today would agree that, under the right circumstances, a spa treatment can promote wellness. "In general, there are many benefits to spa treatments, perhaps the greatest being the relaxation and stress reduction they offer," Horesh tells WebMD. "They can also relieve muscle tension and pain in people who suffer from chronic back pain, fibromyalgia, or who have had an injury from sports or a car accident."

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