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On Saturday, October 28, actor Matthew Perry tragically died in what appeared to be a drowning incident in the hot tub in his Los Angeles home. He was 54 years old. Though his sudden passing is still under investigation—and the exact details of the day are still coming into focus—Perry's death has rocked the internet in more than one way. For millions of fans, it's mourning the loss of a comedic actor who help launch Friends into pop culture infamy. Meanwhile, others are struck by the actor's decades-long battle with addiction—and his commitment to helping those in need.
But, for some, the mere thought of drowning in a hot tub seems unthinkable. These shallow-seeming watering holes are often associated with spa days and vacations—can they be that bad? Well, it depends. While hot tubs can be fine in small doses, they can also really take a toll on your heart.
"Soaking in a hot tub leads to dilation of blood vessels, leading to sudden and significant increases in heart rate (equivalent to performing moderate exercise) and blood pressure drops of as much as 20 mmHg (which can trigger fainting in susceptible individuals)," says cardiologist Elizabeth Klodas, founder of Step One Foods. "This is why patients with heart disease are often advised to avoid hot tubs and saunas."
We don't know if Perry had been diagnosed with a heart condition, but some experts say it's common after a long battle with substance abuse. "Individuals with substance abuse disorder tend to have early atherosclerosis disease that won't show symptoms until they're around 50 or 60 years old," says Christine Kingsley, an advanced practice registered nurse and the health and wellness director of Lung Institute. "Unfortunately, by the time a person notices cardiac arrest symptoms, it's already too late."
That said, those who've been diagnosed with a heart condition aren't the only people who should avoid hot tubs: Pregnant women and anyone who's been consuming alcohol should also stay away as both conditions are linked to elevated blood pressure.
Cardiac arrest isn't the only health risk hot tubs can present. Many hot tubs can increase your exposure to parasites and bacteria such as shigellosis and E. coli. Users are also at risk of breathing in a bacteria called legionella that can cause Legionnaires' disease, a severe type of pneumonia. Less severe side effects can include headaches, dizziness, and vomiting as well as some skin issues. (Spending too much time in a hot tub's chlorine can dry out the skin and cause irritation if you have a condition like eczema.)
Once you understand the health risks involved, the idea of soaking in a hot tub may have lost its luster—and a cold plunge pool might be sounding like a safer bet. However, hot tubs can reportedly decrease stress, improve sleep, and help alleviate tense or sore muscles. So where does that leave you? It's wise to err on the side of caution and talk to your doctor to see if it's safe to incorporate hot tubs in your self-care routine.
If you're given the all clear, you'll want to pay attention to how much time you spend in a hot tub. "The maximum time spent in a hot tub should be limited to no more than 10 to 15 minutes," Kingsley says. "This is especially true if the temperature of the tub is set to the highest skin-safe water temp, which is 104 degrees."
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