Hot Tubs Aren't Just for Fun, but Don't Try Whirlpool 'Hydrotherapy' at Home

From the WebMD Archives

May 10, 2000 -- Doctors often prescribe hydrotherapy -- the external use of water to treat certain diseases -- to promote wound healing. However, reports that people have contracted diseases from hot tubs may scare some people.

But with the preventive measures hospitals have in place, there's really no comparison between public hot tubs and hydrotherapy using whirlpools, says Betsy Hackman, RN, CIC, director of infection control at Emory Hospitals. "They're both bodies of water, but that's where the similarity ends."

Patients with wounds shouldn't worry about contracting infections during hydrotherapy, she says. "Some people have gotten Legionnaire's disease from hot tubs that weren't properly disinfected, " says Hackman. "But hospitals are required to enforce strict measures to prevent infection, otherwise they'll be shut down."

Hydrotherapy softens and removes dead tissue from burns, bedsores, and diabetic foot ulcers, says Jo Ann Waldrop, MSN, RN, assistant director of the Wound, Ostomy, and Continence Nursing Education Program at Emory University. "And once the dead tissue is out of the way, healthy tissue can form."

Burn patients often receive daily hydrotherapy in the hospital. "Hydrotherapy is an important part of burn care, whether it's in a tank or from a showerhead," says Walter Ingram, MD, director of the burn unit at Grady Memorial Hospital and assistant professor of surgery at Emory University.

"But the patients really dread it, so we try to make hydrotherapy more tolerable by giving pain medication beforehand," says Ingram. "And as their burns begin to heal, we reduce treatments to three times a week on an outpatient basis."

Because burn patients are at risk for infection, Ingram tells WebMD that hydrotherapy tanks are disinfected between patients, and disposable liners are used. Also, a chlorine solution is run through the showerheads regularly.

Similar measures are used in whirlpool therapy. "We treat patients for bedsores and diabetic foot ulcers, many of which have infections that are resistant to antibiotics," says Mary Lawton, PT, a whirlpool specialist at Emory University Hospital. "So we add iodine to the bath and disinfect the tub after every use."

To handle the disinfectants, technicians must wear face shields and chemical-resistant gloves. "That's why we discourage the use of home whirlpool systems," adds Lawton. "It's not practical to use hospital-grade disinfectants at home. Besides, hand-held showerheads remove dead tissue just as well."

Vital Information:

  • Hydrotherapy is often prescribed to soften and remove dead tissue from burns, bedsores, and diabetic foot ulcers, making way for health tissue to form.
  • Patients receive hydrotherapy in the hospital, but it can be quite uncomfortable and may require pain medications.
  • Hospitals have strict sanitation practices to prevent the spread of infection.