‘Hot Tub Lung’ Could Leave You Gasping for Breath

By: Sam Watanuki | Published: Apr 08, 2024

There’s nothing like sinking into a hot tub’s warm embrace after a long day. The gentle bubbling sound, the steam rising in the cool air … it’s about as relaxing as you can get.

However, lurking beneath the serene surface are risks unknown to many: harmful bacteria that thrive in just such warm, inviting conditions. It’s a hidden hazard that transforms relaxation into a potential health risk, introducing the phenomenon known as “hot tub lung.”

Understanding Hot Tub Lung

Hot tub lung isn’t a myth; it’s a serious respiratory condition, akin to a silent invader in your lungs. According to the Ghana Medical Journal, this ailment stems from certain types of bacteria thriving in warm, wet areas like your beloved spa.

A grayscale chest x-ray image. The lungs exhibit patchy areas of increased opacity, suggesting pulmonary disease

Source: Wikimedia Commons

“Despite the potential well-being benefits of heat and hydrotherapy,” notes Dr. Dan Baumgardt of The Conversation, “enjoying a relaxing dip … could do more harm than good.” The comfort of warm waters could be setting the stage for a respiratory condition you didn’t see coming.

The Culprits Behind the Steam

The main villains in this narrative are mycobacteria, relatives of the bacteria causing tuberculosis. These tiny organisms find the warm, moist environments of hot tubs perfect for growth and multiplication.

Illustration of gut bacteria moving through the intestine

Source: Freepik

“The hot tub acts as a perfect environment for the growth of these bacteria,” explains Dr. Baumgardt, highlighting how our leisure activities might unwittingly expose us to health risks.

Symptoms to Watch For

If you’re feeling under the weather after a hot tub session, pay attention. Symptoms of hot tub lung include coughing, fever, and shortness of breath (via the Pulmonary Fibrosis Foundation).

A woman sits on her sofa with her hand in a fist and she is coughing. There is a remote on the sofa and a wooden side table behind her with a lamp on.

Source: Annie Spratt/Unsplash

These signs can sneak up on you post-dip, signaling it’s time to reconsider your hot tub habits. As Dr. Baumgardt points out, these symptoms “result in … inflammation in the lung tissue,” a clear sign not everything is right inside.

How It Spreads

The warm and bubbly features of hot tubs, so effective for relaxation, are precisely what make them a breeding ground for bacteria.

Water Drop Photo

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Dr. Baumgardt warns, “The bubbling of the water also acts as an aerosol — allowing the bacteria to be released into the air, where they can be inhaled.”

At Higher Risk

Individuals with a compromised immune system are particularly vulnerable, according to the CDC.

A person with dark hair and glasses is coughing into their fist while simultaneously holding up their other hand with palm facing forward in a 'stop' gesture

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The constant exposure increases the chances of inhaling harmful bacteria, setting the stage for hot tub lung.


Treatment and Prevention

Facing hot tub lung doesn’t mean waving goodbye to your spa days forever. The key to combating this condition is reducing exposure — stepping back from the hot tub life may be necessary.

Woman testing the water of a hot tub

Source: Freepik

In some instances, corticosteroid medications may be prescribed, offering a path to recovery without the heavy artillery of long-term antibiotics (via The Sun). Understanding and action can lead to a safe return to relaxation.


Beyond the Lung

Hot tub dangers don’t stop at the lungs. Legionnaires’ disease and hot tub folliculitis are other unwelcome guests in your spa water.

concerned doctor sitting at desk

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Legionnaires’ disease, caused by Legionella bacteria, presents with flu-like symptoms and can be severe. Meanwhile, a nasty rash from hot tub folliculitis reminds us that what lies beneath may come to the surface in uncomfortable ways (via Cleveland Clinic).


A Mother's Nightmare

It really can be that dangerous. For instance, consider the story of a mother who nearly lost her leg to a “hot tub rash” while vacationing in Tennessee (via USA Today).

An empty hospital corridor with a gurney on the right side, indicating preparedness for patient transport

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This extreme case of hot tub folliculitis underlines the critical importance of hot tub cleanliness and personal vigilance. Such incidents are reminders of the hidden dangers in seemingly safe environments.


The Silver Lining

Despite the risks, hot tubs are not all doom and gloom. Properly maintained spas can offer health benefits akin to those of physical exercise without the strain.

Close-up of a person's wrist wearing a fitness tracker while sitting down. The person's curly hair is partially visible at the top, and they are wearing black athletic shorts and black and white running shoes

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Balancing the therapeutic advantages against the potential hazards means you can still enjoy the benefits without putting yourself in danger.


Maintenance is Key

A clean hot tub is a safer hot tub. Regular maintenance, proper chlorination, and diligent cleaning are your best defenses against unwanted bacteria.

Close-Up Photo Of Person Cleaning The Table

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Ensuring your spa is in top condition doesn’t just enhance your relaxation — it safeguards your health, making each dip a worry-free indulgence.


Finding the Balance

Hot tubs can be a source of immense pleasure and relaxation. However, understanding the risks and taking preventive measures can ensure your time spent in these watery havens remains both enjoyable and safe.

Family playing in hot tub

Source: Lowe's

By staying informed and vigilant, we can continue to embrace the warmth without getting burned by unseen threats.