As over hundreds of guests recently learned after a dip in the Playboy Mansion’s hot tub, there’s nothing viruses and bacteria love more than warm H2O.
By Korin Miller
If the idea of a long soak in a steaming hot tub conjures up sigh-inducing images of relaxation and romance, we’re about to, uh, burst your bubble. “People don’t realize it, but a hot tub can be a breeding ground for infections ranging from skin issues to STDs,” says New York internist Holly Phillips. Don’t submerge your bod into one this summer until you read this.
Yes, hot tubs are chlorinated, but if they aren’t properly maintained, the chemicals won’t kill off all the teeming bacteria that love to call them home. The heat doesn’t fry them either, says hot-tub expert Brenda Murr, member of the American Pool and Spa Professionals retail council. “Bacteria grow even faster in warm water,” she says.
The most common side effect of soaking is pseudomonas folliculitis, a skin infection that produces itchy, bright red bumps. It usually clears up on its own in 10 days or less—a good thing considering that it’s resistant to many antibiotics, according to Albert Lefkovits, a dermatologist in New York City.
Then there are the bacteria that cause toxic shock syndrome (the life-threatening infection tampon boxes warn about). They can get in a tub if another person who has soaked before you carries them and enter your body through a small cut or scrape. Getting toxic shock syndrome from a tub is rare, says Dr. Phillips, but it does happen.
Other possible perils include heat stroke and heat exhaustion from being in one too long (just 10 to 15 minutes is recommended), says Lara McKenzie, PhD. Add alcohol and you’re at greater risk of both, as the warm water gets you tipsy and dehydrated more quickly.
You can even become seriously injured from getting your hair caught in a drain. In a 2009 study on hot-tub injuries, 49 such cases— some of them fatal—were found over a 16-year period.
New legislation was passed in 2007 that requires all public tubs (not just new ones) to have safer drain covers installed that greatly reduce the likelihood that your mane will become entangled, but it’s hard to enforce.
There are more unexpected danger zones. Bacteria can live in a tub’s pipes, says Dr. Phillips, and when the jets turn on, air bubbles rise to the surface, burst, and shoot bacteria into the air. Breathing in the bugs can lead to anything from a bad cough to Legionnaires’ disease, a rare but potentially deadly form of pneumonia. (This was the same bacteria that was found in the Playboy Mansion tub earlier this week, leaving 123 people sick).
Think you’d be safe as long as you just sit and watch from the sidelines? Nope. If someone with herpes recently sat on the edge and you take their place, you possibly could contract the virus, even through a bathing suit, says Dr. Lefkovits. The risks are lower than if you’d had unprotected sex, but consider this: Roughly 1 in 6 people from ages 14 to 49 has genital herpes, and the virus loves to live in warm, damp areas like, yes, the rim of a hot tub.
You don’t have to swear off hot tubs forever. Just steer clear of high-traffic tubs, like the ones at hotels, gyms, and spas. “The more people in a tub, the higher your risk for getting sick,” says Dr. Phillips. Even in a friend’s hot tub, don’t dunk your head underwater or (sorry) get busy. Both ramp up the odds of infection.
Addicted to being massaged all over by those hot-water jets? Maybe it’s time to invest in your own Jacuzzi bathtub.
As Seen on TV
We know you wouldn’t fall for rumors like these, but we have to set the record straight on a couple of ridiculous claims we saw on our favorite shows.
The Heat Kills Sperm Instantly (Jersey Shore)
Nope—the temperatures aren’t high enough. You can still get pregnant if you have intercourse in a tub without protection.
Sperm can swim from one person to the next. (Glee)
Sperm can’t survive for more than a few seconds in hot, chlorinated water.