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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.

Spas: Are They Safe? continued...


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.

And while he says some germs will succumb to chlorine, others, like those with a "biofilm" (a kind of molecular adhesive that binds several organisms together including those which cause Legionnaires' disease), it won't do a thing.

"You would need 1,500 times the amount normally used to kill it -- you would kill people before you would kill the organism," says Tierno.

And that, he says, means many spas can put you at risk. "It's not just heated pools and warm baths that are problem -- and it's not just Legionnaires' disease about which you should be concerned," he says. Other bacteria can also thrive in these conditions.

"These organisms love hot, wet environments -- spas are heated and steamy, and when you inhale vaporized water in this atmosphere you are potentially inhaling whatever organisms are present," he says.

Dermatologist Ellen Marmur, MD, says she's most concerned about risks to spa users seeking relief for skin problems, such as dermatitis or psoriasis. She says any break in the skin can increase the risk of germ transmission from surface areas like tables, baths, and even hot rocks or other items placed on the surface of the body during treatment.

"Even a bad sunburn can leave the skin compromised so that picking up an organism is easier," says Marmur. Moreover, she reminds us that some spa treatments such as full body exfoliation might actually increase risks further by creating microscopic tears in the skin that act as an invitation for germs to enter the body.

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