A hot bath may be relaxing at the end of a long day. But depending on the temperature of your bath water and duration of bathing, it can hold several health risks. The bathroom is known for being dangerous mainly because of wet floors being slippery and often resulting in falls. For the elderly, the bathroom is one of the most dangerous areas of the house with more accidents happening in the bathroom than anywhere else. However, the act of bathing itself may further contribute to the likelihood of accidents in the bathroom.
Whether it is a shower or a soak in a bath, very hot water can be dangerous. Bathing in water above 39C (102F) can have various physiological effects on the body that may lead to some serious consequences. Some people prefer hotter water than others when bathing. However, even personal preference should have a limit. There is no specific bath water temperature that is ideal but it should not exceed 43C (110F) to be within safe limits. Babies should be bathed in much lower temperatures than what would be acceptable for an older child or adult. Water temperature should be as close to normal body temperature (37C/98.6F) especially for newborns.
There are various possible health risks that can occur in the bathroom. It can vary greatly with each situation. Having a shower is often seen as a better option since standing detracts from long baths and the body is not immersed in water. Furthermore, a person can quickly react and step out of very hot shower water rather than having to stand up to exit a bath tub. Here are some of the more common bathing dangers.
Burns and Skin Injuries
Most of us know when water is too hot for us to tolerate. The temperature receptors in our skin immediately signal us and we then act to get away from the danger of very hot water. However, burns from hot bath water is not uncommon. Babies and the elderly are at a greater risk. Babies have much more delicate skin and a negligent caregiver may use too hot bath water from which the baby cannot escape. The elderly are the other high risk group especially when they have conditions like diabetes. Damage to the nerves (diabetic neuropathy) can affect the temperature sensation, especially on the legs. In these cases burns may occur without the diabetic even being aware of the injury. Hot water may also worsen certain skin diseases and irritate open wounds on the skin.
Drop in Blood Pressure
Heat causes the blood vessels in the skin to dilate (vasodilation). As a result the peripheral vascular resistance (the resistance by the wall of the vessels to blood flow) lowers and the blood pressure drops (hypotension). However, depending on the extent to which the blood pressure decreases, the heart may try to compensate by pumping harder and faster. Not only can this strain a diseased heart but even in a healthy person it can be extreme enough to lead to lightheadedness. In severe cases it may possibly result in fainting. For obvious reasons, loss of consciousness in a bath of water can be very dangerous.
Dizziness and Poor Balance
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As mentioned above, the changes in blood pressure with hot water may affect the blood flow to the brain. A person usually experiences this alteration as lightheadedness or dizziness. As a result the sense of balance may be impaired. Even a slight alteration in normal balance can affect a person’s ability to safely get out of a bath tub. Coupled with wet floors in the bathroom, dizziness and poor balance can increase the likelihood of falls. A severe fall can lead to a fractured bone or even worse a person may bump their head on a hard surface in the bathroom. A serious fall of this magnitude can lead to a loss of consciousness.
Body Heat Loss and Gain
Internal heat is dissipated primarily through the skin. If there is a build up of heat, then the blood vessels in the skin dilate and heat is dissipated into the environment. The opposite occurs to retain heat when the body temperature is too low. However, when in hot water the skin cannot dissipate heat sufficiently. As a result the body can become overheated especially if the water is very hot and the bath too long. Even without extreme overheating (heat illness/hyperthermia), the dilated skin vessels from a hot bath may allow a the body to lose too much of internal heat afterwards. This can result in hypothermia after a hot bath if the environmental temperature is very low (cold climates) and the body’s thermoregulatory mechanisms do not compensate quickly. It is more often a problem for the elderly.
Nausea and Vomiting
Some people experience nausea after a hot bath, especially when soaking in a bath tub possibly due to changes in blood flow to the brain. It is often more likely to occur after eating and then taking a hot bath which may be a result of blood flowing away from the digestive tract to the skin. Pregnant women also tend to find that their nausea can worsen with a long hot bath. It can be severe enough to even lead to vomiting. In most instances the nausea will quickly subside after stepping out of the bath tub or shower. Vomiting is usually not severe enough to lead to dehydration and other complications but is nevertheless an adverse effect of bathing in hot water.
Intoxication During Bathing
Intoxication be it from alcohol, prescription medication like sedatives or illicit drugs can be a dangerous mix when bathing. These substances alter blood pressure and heart activity which can be further exacerbated by the effects of being in hot water. Furthermore dizziness and poor balance from intoxication can increase the chances of mishaps in the bathroom. More severe intoxication can also alter a person’s level of consciousness and ability to respond when the head is immersed in water. It can even lead to accidental drowning in a bath tube. Having a shower may therefore be a safer bet if a person has to bathe while being intoxicated. However, bathing alone should be avoided in severe intoxication.