Bathing the skin in a variety of preparations in order to remove crusts, scales, and old medications or to relieve inflammation and itching is called taking a therapeutic bath. The term therapeutic bath is also used to refer to various types of warm-water soaks used to speed wound healing, to apply gentle heat to sore muscles or joints, to relieve emotional stress, or to treat a variety of physical disorders ranging from sports injuries, rheumatoid arthritis, and chronic sinusitis to painful menstruation and vascular disorders. Therapeutic baths are one form of hydrotherapy, which is a general term for the internal or external use of water for medical treatment.
Balneotherapy is the medical term for the use of baths or soaks to treat injuries or illnesses. It comes from the Latin word balneum, which means bath. Balneotherapy has been used for thousands of years to treat skin disorders, arthritis, paralysis, gynecological disorders, and depression and other emotional problems. The remains of ancient baths have been found in the Indus Valley in India, and the Romans discovered mineral springs in various parts of Europe that are still used for balneotherapy.
Baths or soaks are an easy way to treat a variety of skin disorders involving large areas of the skin, injuries to or disorders of the muscles and joints, menstrual and menopausal discomfort, fatigue, or general stress and tension. They relieve general aches and pains and can ease dry or oily, inflamed or itchy skin. Hot baths are relaxing and stimulating; cool baths can reduce inflammation.
In children as well as adults therapeutic baths are useful for itchy skin, hives, sunburn, chafing, poison ivy and oak, eczema, skin irritation, and dry skin. They may also help to relieve emotional tension and stress. Warm-water soaks are recommended for speeding recovery from sprains, muscle aches and pains, and other athletic injuries.
Therapeutic baths are used to treat a wider variety of disorders and injuries in Europe and the French-speaking parts of Canada than in the United States. In Eastern Europe and the countries of the former Soviet Union, therapeutic baths are used to treat children suffering from the aftereffects of head trauma as well as other physical injuries. One Italian spa lists recurrent earaches, sinus infections, and acne among the conditions that can be treated with therapeutic baths for children and adolescents as well as adults. European doctors often use mineral water in therapeutic baths or add seaweed, dried moss, mud, or various mineral salts to the bath water.
Different types of therapeutic baths are used for different skin conditions. The following are some examples:
- Colloidal oatmeal (oatmeal that has been ground into a fine powder, e.g. Aveeno) coats, soothes, and stops itching without drying out the skin.
- Potassium permanganate—a dark purple salt—makes a good disinfectant.
- Bath oils are used as an emollient to ease itchy skin and eczema. RoBathol and cottonseed oil are recommended for younger children.
- Cornstarch is a soothing, drying bath for itchy skin.
- Sodium bicarbonate can be cooling for sunburn or other hot, dry skin conditions.
- Saline (salt) water baths can be used to treat eczema in children. The recommended amount is one cup to a tubful of warm water.
- Chlorine bleach can be added to bath water for children who develop recurrent skin infections with eczema. The recommended amount is two teaspoons per gallon of water.
Therapeutic baths to treat sports injuries or relieve menstrual cramps may use slightly warmer water than is used to relieve skin disorders. Adolescents using therapeutic baths to relieve emotional stress may add a few drops of essential oils of lavender or other fragrant herbs to the bath water. Some people like to add eucalyptus oil to the bath water to relieve nasal congestion when they are recovering from colds or sinusitis.
The temperature of the water for a therapeutic bath should feel comfortable to the hand. The bath should not last longer than 20 to 30 minutes because of the tendency of these soaks to soften and wear away the skin.
A bath mat should be placed in the tub before adding water, since medications may cause the floor of the tub to be slippery.
Parents should not leave small children alone in the bath because of the risk of drowning.
Essential flower or herb oils used to scent therapeutic baths should always be added to the water; they should never be applied directly to the skin.
Parents should keep the room warm to minimize temperature fluctuations. This precaution is particularly important when bathing infants or younger children.
Parents should also take appropriate safety precautions, including removing hair dryers, electric shavers, or other small electrical appliances from the tub area. Another important safety precaution is to check the temperature setting on the hot water heater to make sure that it does not raise the temperature of the water to the scalding point. The standard factory setting on new household water heaters is 120°F (49°C), which is the highest setting considered to be safe. It is better for large families to purchase a larger hot water heater if there is a concern about the availability of hot water than to turn the thermostat on the heater higher than 120°F (49°C).
After the bath, the skin should be blotted (not rubbed) carefully with a towel. The patient should wear loose, light clothing after the bath. If the child or adolescent is being treated for eczema, an emollient should be applied within three minutes. Parents may use vegetable oil, petroleum jelly, or such commercial creams as Aveeno, Curel, Purpose, Dermasil, Neutrogena, DML Forte, and Eucerin. Some doctors may recommend preparations containing urea, lactic acid, or alpha-hydroxy acid.
Teenagers using therapeutic baths as part of rehabilitation after an athletic injury should follow the recommendations of their doctor or physical therapist regarding range-of-motion exercises or other treatments following the warm-water soak.
The most common risks associated with therapeutic baths are falls caused by loss of balance on a wet or slippery surface, electrocution caused by a hair dryer or other small appliance falling into the tub, scalding accidents from overheated water, and accidental drowning.
Some older children or adolescents may experience fatigue or a drop in blood pressure from long immersion in a therapeutic bath.
Therapeutic baths are a common and inexpensive treatment for a variety of skin disorders, menstrual cramps, and minor aches and pains. The chief concern of parents should be taking appropriate safety precautions regarding the hot water supply and the bathroom or tub area.
Balneotherapy—The medical term for the use of baths to treat disease.
Eczema—A superficial type of inflammation of the skin that may be very itchy and weeping in the early stages; later, the affected skin becomes crusted, scaly, and thick.
Barron, Patrick. Hydrotherapy: Theory and Technique. Orlando, FL: Pine Island Publishers, 2003.
Kellogg, John Harvey. Rational Hydrotherapy. Brushton, NY: TEACH Services, 2001.
Pelletier, Kenneth R. The Best Alternative Medicine, Part I: Naturopathic Medicine. New York: Simon and Schuster, 2002.
American Academy of Dermatology (AAD). PO Box 4014, Schaumburg, IL 60168–4014. Web site: <www.aad.org>.
American Association of Naturopathic Physicians. 8201 Greensboro Drive, Suite 300, McLean, Virginia 22102. Web site: <http://naturopathic.org>.
Carol A. Turkington