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Spas: The Risks and Benefits

Can spa treatments deliver on their promises – and are there health risks you should know? WebMD investigates.

WebMD Feature

The ads are enticing and hard to miss: A serene atmosphere featuring relaxed and beautiful people, all of whom ostensibly got that way by living the "spa" life.

In fact, from day spas to weekend spas to weeklong spa getaways, this form of "healthy" relaxation has become so popular that a 2006 survey by the International Spa Association (ISPA) reports one-quarter of all American adults - some 57 million folks - plus 4 million teens have had at least one visit to a spa.


Among the reasons cited: Stress reduction and relief, soothing sore joints and muscles, and simply feeling better about oneself. And experts say the survey findings doesn't surprise them.

"Going to a spa is a way of getting taken care of that is psychologically and culturally acceptable -- and we can carry that feeling of being cared for with us for a period of time, and very often that can help us cope better with stress," says NYU professor of psychiatry Virginia Sadock, MD.

Moreover, she says, most spa treatments involve being touched, a key element in helping us relax and feel better.

"Physical contact is necessary to our well-being, and even if the touching is from a stranger, if that stranger is a professional there to pamper you, that touch will have a beneficial effect," says Sadock.

And at least some studies show that these benefits can translate into better health. In one study of more than 3,300 Japanese government workers, frequency of spa use was linked to better physical and mental health, including better quality sleep and fewer sick days. In a similar study on German data conducted by researchers from Florida State University and George Mason University, spa therapy reduced both absenteeism from work and hospitalizations.

But are all spa treatments equal? And are there any hidden dangers that might prove unhealthy? WebMD discovered some surprising truths along the route to better health.

Spas: Are They Safe?

Who could forget the headlines that nearly wiped out the cruise ship industry: Hundreds of people stricken with Legionnaires' disease, a potentially deadly pneumonia traced to a heated spa whirlpool bath located aboard a luxury cruise ship.


Since that time, medical literature has been teeming with studies on similar situations, all indicating that communal pools, saunas, and other water-related spa treatments hold not only the potential to transmit this germ, but a host of equally threatening organisms.

"In many spa treatments that involve water, including hot whirlpool baths, very seldom do they change the water. They toss in some chlorine to keep bacteria counts down, but in no way does this eradicate organisms completely," says Philip Tierno Jr., PhD, director of microbiology at NYU Medical Center and author of The Secret Life of Germs.

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