Top 5 Infections You Can Pick Up at the Nail Salon

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Most nail salons see a steady parade of business. Nails get cut and filed, feet soak in tubs, cuticles get pushed back and trimmed, calluses get buffed. And while the majority of nail salon visits won't send you on your way with anything other than an excellent manicure and pedicure, customers -- and salon workers -- are at risk of spreading disease.

How can a desire for well-groomed nails lead you straight to the doctor's office? All that buffing, clipping and trimming means that it's not uncommon for hands and feet to get nicked and cut. And wherever you have open wounds and a lot of skin-to-skin and skin-to-surface contact, you have a very good chance of picking up some gross bacteria or viruses.


So what are the risks of a pampering footbath? We've got five nasty bugs to look out for.

5: Athlete's Foot

athlete's foot
Athlete's foot isn't just for athletes.

Despite its name, athlete's foot affects people regardless of their athletic prowess. It's the common name for tinea pedis, a fungal infection that requires a moist, confined environment to take root and spread.

Unfortunately, the pedicure baths of a salon provide a breeding ground. Let's face it: Lots of feet get put into that tub, and not all of those feet are clean. If a spa doesn't regularly clean its foot tubs between each client, the odds of leaving the spa with a fungal infection you didn't walk in with increase. Also, fungus isn't so easily removed from the surfaces it grows on, so a light cleaning may not rid a tub of its presence. Frequent use of an anti-fungal cleaning agent is the best way to prevent spa clients from getting athlete's foot from a foot tub. On the other hand, if your feet are itching like crazy and you haven't changed your socks in weeks, you should steer clear of spas or any activity that could potentially spread the fungus to others.


A spa treatment is supposed to make you feel like a princess, so you don't want to go home looking more like the frog the princess kissed instead.

4: Warts

One thing available at nail salons that's not posted on any service menu is a contagious skin disease. With all the hands and feet passing through a salon each day, the odds are solid that some of those appendages have warts on them.

Warts are caused by a contagious virus called human papillomavirus (HPV). There are many different strains of the virus (such as the type that can cause cervical cancer), but only a few different kinds spur the overproduction of skin cells that results in warts.


Warts spread through person-to-person contact when HPV makes contact with a break in the skin. Hands play host to both common warts and palmer warts. The tops of feet may also have common warts, while the bottoms can have plantar warts, which grow inward due to constant pressure between the foot and the ground. All of these are contagious.

Warts can be spread if a salon worker uses the same pumice stone for different clients. Most salons offer new pumice stones, and you can always bring your own to lower the risk of getting warts. You should also frequent salons where employees wear plastic gloves that they change between appointments.

3: Swine Flu

woman blowing her nose
Time to reschedule.

HPV isn't the only virus you can pick up at the spa. The H1N1 virus (more commonly -- and misleadingly -- known as the swine flu) makes an appearance as well.

H1N1 is a highly contagious strain of the flu virus. One big reason for this is that most people have no immunity to it, because it's new. It spreads just like the "regular" flu virus -- someone infected with it coughs, sneezes or touches their mouth and then makes contact with another person or a surface someone else will touch.


The virus can survive outside the body for up to eight hours, meaning that an infected customer at a salon can unknowingly booby-trap the establishment with the virus. With all the hand-to-hand contact that occurs in a salon, it's not difficult to understand why swine flu could easily spread between employees and customers.

So how can you avoid it? Ideally, salon workers wear protective disposable gloves for each client and change and gloves (with a hand washing for good measure) between appointments. All instruments should be treated with chemical germicides.

And if a salon employee is exhibiting flu symptoms, reschedule your appointment. Likewise, if you're infected with H1N1 (or show any flulike symptoms at all, even without diagnosis), cancel that appointment, no matter how much attention your nails need.


Another good reason to make sure your nail technician changes his or her gloves between customers: a superbug called MRSA.

If you've paid attention to the news in recent years, you've likely noticed an uptick in stories about a type of staph infection called methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus. MRSA infections can lead to severe scarring, amputation and even death -- and it's resistant to antibiotics.


Though not common, MRSA is known to be spread at nail salons, leading to infections on hands and beneath fingernails. Symptoms usually appear within 24 hours -- you'll likely experience pain in your hands and be unable to bend or use your fingers with any degree of comfort. The swollen, red skin around the infected area will crack open and ooze pus. It's hard to miss.

MRSA can be spread through the sharing of unsanitized nail files or other nail implements. These implements should be soaked in a disinfecting solution for a minimum of 10 minutes, then treated with a sterilizing agent. Foot baths should be vigorously cleaned and sanitized between clients.

1: Mycobacterium fortuitum

Beware bacteria!

This nasty bug might give you a good reason not to shave your legs. You can get Mycobacterium fortuitum from foot baths -- and the risk is greatly increased when a soak is preceded by leg shaving.

What does an M. fortuitum infection consist of? Large boils on the toe, foot or leg. These boils may be surrounded by smaller bumps. Sometimes they heal on their own, but they can linger and even turn into open sores. M. fortuitum boils can be lanced by a medical professional and treated with extremely potent antibiotics, but unfortunately, these boils and sores can cause heavy scarring.


To avoid getting the bug, pay attention to any regional reports of M. fortuitum outbreaks. Take your own nail tools to the salon for them to use during your appointment. And don't be afraid to ask the salon owner about the establishment's cleaning procedures. After all, you want to treat yourself, but not to a bug like M. fortuitum.

For lots more information on skin care and contagious diseases, see the next page.

Nail Salon Infections FAQ

How do I treat paronychia?
Treatment tends to involve soaking the affected nail in warm water several times a day and either applying antibiotic cream or in severe cases, taking oral antibiotics.
Can acrylic nails cause paronychia?
Yes, they can. The risk of a paronychia infection, caused by a damaged cuticle, is increased if you have ingrown nails, bite your nails, or wear acrylic nails.
What to do if you get an infection from a nail salon?
The first thing you should do is call the salon to let them know. Businesses often work hard to avoid gross bacteria or viruses, but it's still not uncommon to get them. Treat the infection at home if you can, or make an appointment with your doctor to determine the best course of action. You can keep any medical bills or pharmacy receipts and request that the salon reimburse you, though there's no guarantee that they will. It may also be time to switch salons at this point or consider doing at-home manicures.
Is it safe to get a manicure or pedicure with a cut?
No, do not go to a nail salon if you have cuts, scrapes, or open wounds on your hands or feet. This can allow bacteria to get in that normally would not be able to.
Can you get a staph infection from a nail salon?
Though uncommon, methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus (staph infection) is known to spread at nail salons through the sharing of unsanitized nail files or other nail implements. It's hard to miss since symptoms are severe and usually appear within 24 hours. Pain in the hands and an inability to bend or use fingers comfortably is common. The swollen, red skin around the infected area also tends to crack open and ooze pus and discharge. Call the salon and your doctor right away if this happens to you.

Lots More Information

Related HowStuffWorks Articles

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  • Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. "2009 H1N1 Flu." (Jan. 20, 2010)
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  • Feet for Life Podiatry Center. "Plantar Warts." (Jan. 20, 2010)
  • "H1N1 (Swine flu)." (Jan. 20, 2010)
  • "Prevention and treatment." (Jan. 20, 2010)
  • Fritz, Joseph M., MD. "Mycobacterium Fortuitum." Dec. 3, 2007. (Jan. 20, 2010)
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