Health News Digest

July 31, 2006

Don’t Get Nailed With An Infectionelegant nails

By  Michael D. Shaw

Now featured at your local strip mall, and in more elegant settings as well, is the relatively new testimonial to good old human vanity—the local nail salon.

These establishments, touted in some circles as small business success stories, have become extremely popular. After all, for millions of time-challenged hard-working professionals, a little manicure or pedicure seems like a great way to indulge yourself at a relatively low price. And, maybe it is, but there can also be a downside: Potentially dangerous infections, caused by less than hygienic practices.

In fact, as public awareness of the problem has grown, the salons are being targeted for increased regulation and oversight, even if this may have the appearance of going after particular ethnic groups.

Still, the current situation, which is sort of a Wild West hodgepodge of few if any consumer safeguards, along with varying degrees of sanitation, is the very reason why a celebrity like Paula Abdul testified last year before a California State Senate committee about this danger. In April, 2004, she had contracted a fungal infection from an upscale nail salon, triggering a yearlong medical ordeal.

“What I saw fly out of my thumb was a green and yellow thick substance that smelled foul, and then blood, blood, blood,” Abdul told the California Senate Business and Professions Committee in Sacramento. “Being a professional dancer, I’m no stranger to pain, but this time the pain was so excruciating that even my hair touching my thumb caused me to scream.”

Most salons do have in place some form of isopropyl alcohol-based germicide—the most common being the familiar Barbicide®. Unfortunately, there are few controls on how diligently it might be employed or replenished. Moreover, any such disinfectant (and that is what all these formulations are) will not kill spores. That requires true sterilization, generally effected by pressurized steam.

While both fungi and bacteria produce spores, the most notorious pathogenic spores are bacterial. They exist to preserve the bacterium through periods of unfavorable conditions, and can be incredibly durable, being able to germinate after years of dormancy. It is not difficult to envision how a quantity of spores could build up in the environment of a nail salon, just looking for a golden opportunity to strike. Sometimes, the results can be fatal.

Texan Kimberly Kay Jackson loved getting pedicures each month, but after her heel was cut with a pumice stone during a pedicure, she developed an oozing wound that wouldn’t heal despite repeated rounds of antibiotics. Jackson died in February, 2006 of a heart attack triggered by a staph infection, according to family’s attorney.

If that was the first case of a nail spa death, it was soon followed by another…

Jessica Mears, of Sunnyvale, California died in June, 2006 after contracting a very nasty mycobacterial infection at a local salon, in November, 2004. In her case, being a Lupus sufferer, her immune system was already compromised, and her overall condition simply deteriorated with time.

Most likely, minor infections stemming from this environment occur frequently, but, admittedly, it will take a perfect storm of either a large inoculation affecting a normal individual, or a moderate inoculation hitting an immunocompromised individual to cause serious problems. Even so, the lack of large numbers or more sensational cases could also be related to not deducing cause and effect. Increased publicity should help.

With infections reported in several states including California, Florida, Arizona, Virginia, North Carolina, Texas, Illinois, New York, Colorado, Oregon, Kentucky and Ohio, dermatologist Dr. Shelley Sekula-Gibbs believes that the increasing number of cases nationwide represents a disturbing trend caused by bacteria that grows in dirty foot spas.

“We really can’t scare people enough,” said Gibbs. “It’s a very real threat—all across the country.”

What should the informed nail salon consumer do for self-protection?

An easy solution is to bring your own instruments for your manicure and pedicure, and simply avoid the foot spas. Additionally, you should ask pointed questions to the salon management, and don’t be afraid to bolt if you feel uncomfortable at all.

Looking good may be important, but being healthy is even better. You should strive for both.