Fish spas may be cool and trendy, but there are fish spa health risks which are very real, as an Australian woman recently learned. Here, we recount her story and provide safety information which all parents should know about fish spas.
Australian Woman Has All Toes Amputated Due to Fish Spa
Victoria Curthoys, a 29-year-old Australian, found out about fish spa health risks the hard way.
Twelve years ago, in 2006, Victoria stepped on glass, which led to her contracting a bone infection. As a result, her big toe had to be partially cut off.
All was fine until a trip to Thailand recently, where she tried out a foot spa. Although the tank appeared clean, she returned to Australia feeling ill and down with a fever. Her condition led to a series of infections which, ultimately, resulted in the amputation of all her toes on her right foot.
Fish Spa Health Risks: Continuous Toe Infections
Curthoys recalls that doctors in Australia couldn’t pinpoint the bacteria that had infected her foot. It was only after more than a year did they find out that Shewanella, a bacteria found in fish tanks, was the cause.
Apparently, the bacteria managed to invade her body by slipping in through the surgical wounds Victoria suffered from before. As a result, she contracted Osteomyelitis – yet another bone infection.
At this point in 2012, her big toe’s remaining tissue had begun to decay, and medical professionals had no choice but to amputate it.
However, it did not stop there.
The first successful amputation brought a sigh of relief as her four other toes seemed healthy – until medical professionals detected that her second toe was infected. That meant another amputation.
Two years later, Victoria began vomiting – another sign of infection, which was confirmed after a blood test.
Within seven years of her first amputation, Victoria had to undergo three more surgical procedures to remove her right foot’s remaining toes. The last procedure happened in November 2017.
At first, the 29-year-old feared displaying her right foot in public areas, like the pool. However, she has conquered this internal ordeal and has approached the situation with a positive attitude, as you can see in her Instagram account, @terrifically-toeless.
Fish spas are not advised for children.
What All Parents Should Know About Fish Spas
Although fish spas may look clean and safe, there are no guarantees. As a matter of fact, fish spas are even banned in the USA due to this reason. According to Centre for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC):
- Fish spa tanks can’t be cleaned well enough as customers change while the fish are still swimming.
- The fishes can’t be disinfected or sanitised as customers change. What’s more, since the fish aren’t cheap, either, fish spa owners are less likely to change fish groups as customers change – a hazard that raises the risk of contracting infections.
- Other, potentially dangerous fish could be used instead. Sometimes the Chinese Chinchin is wrongly labelled as the Garra rufa, the fish normally used in these fish spas. Unlike the Garra rufa, Chinchin develops teeth and can drain blood – which makes infections likelier.
- The fish don’t naturally eat skin. They are cruelly starved so that they eat skin out of desperation, which is animal cruelty.
What Medical Experts Say About Fish Spa Health Risks
The idea that these fish spas may pose a health hazard isn’t just exemplified by Victoria’s experience. Many health professionals have warned against going to fish spas.
Dr Nisha Suyien Chandran is the head and consultant with the Division of Dermatology at National University Hospital.
According to him: “If the fish carry strains of bacteria and a user has open wounds on his feet, there is a theoretical risk that when the fish nibble on a user’s skin, these bacteria could be transmitted.”
People with abrasions and wounds on their legs and young children shouldn’t try out fish spas. | Image source: stock photos
Dr Chandran also emphasises that those who have cuts and grazes on their skin could also pose a risk.
In fact, HIV infection is possible, too. Dr Chandran explains: “If a user is infected with a blood-borne infection such as HIV and has open wounds on his feet, there is a theoretical risk that the infected blood could enter the water and subsequently infect another user, should this user also have open wounds on his feet. This risk, however, is theoretical and very low.”
Who Should Avoid Fish Spas?
According to NHS, fish spas do indeed carry a low risk of infection for healthy adults. However, risks can be higher if you have certain conditions. You could be at risk of contracting an infection or infecting others. Avoid fish spas if you…
- waxed or shaved legs from the day before (as tiny cuts on the skin can allow bacteria in)
- are currently recovering from open cuts, wounds, abrasions or broken skin on their foot or their lower leg areas
- have a current foot infection, such as athlete’s foot
- are suffering from skin conditions like psoriasis, eczema or dermatitis around the feet or lower legs
- have diabetes
- have conditions caused by viruses residing in the blood, like hepatitis B, hepatitis C or HIV
- are suffering from weakened immune systems because of an illness or medicine
- have bleeding disorders or are taking anticoagulant medication like heparin or warfarin
- are advanced in age, pregnant or a toddler/infant
Remember, parents, if you need to dispose of dead skin, a pumice stone is a safer alternative.
References: Stomp Online, CDC, NHS, CNA
Originally published by The Asian Parent Singapore