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“Hot potting” is the practice of soaking in natural hot springs.

Hot springs, also known as thermal springs, form when water seeps deep into the Earth and circulates back up. The deeper the rocks, the hotter the temperature. In volcanic areas, water may gain heat from contact with hot magma.

All around the world, hot springs are popular tourist destinations, with many a spa sprouting up nearby. One big draw, of course, is their awe-inspiring natural beauty. Another is to soak in the soothing, mineral-rich waters.

People have been soaking in warm or hot springs for thousands of years. The practice is known for promoting relaxation and general wellness, along with a few other health claims.

Hot potters have a passion for traveling from hot spring to hot spring, alone or in groups. But hot potting is a dangerous practice. It has caused serious injury and death.

Keep reading to learn more about hot potting, whether it’s safe, and what you need to know before you take the plunge.

How hot are hot springs?

The water temperature in a thermal spring is higher than that of other ground water in the area.

There’s a big difference between warm springs and hot springs, and you can’t necessarily tell the difference just by looking. In fact, hot springs can appear deceptively cool.

At 122°F (50°C), you’ve got a hot spring. At that temperature, you can get a serious burn in about 10 minutes. But temperatures can reach much higher than that, even surpassing the point of boiling.

In some springs in Yellowstone National Park, for example, magma superheats the water before it rises back to the surface. Because the water is in constant circulation, it doesn’t get hot enough to cause an eruption.

At 140°F (60°C), it only takes about 3 seconds to get a serious burn. And in some cases, boiling water in a hot spring can shoot water into the air like a geyser.

Hot springs deaths

News reports of a 2016 death in Yellowstone highlight the dangers of hot springs. A 23-year-old man was looking for a place to hot pot when he slipped and fell into the boiling, acidic water. He was killed instantly.

According to the Associated Press, at least 22 people are known to have died from hot spring injuries in the vicinity of Yellowstone National Park since 1890. Most were accidents, but at least 2 involved people who tried to swim in a hot spring.

And that’s just Yellowstone. The number of people who die in hot springs around the world isn’t clear.

There’s quite a bit of research into the health effects of water therapy. When we talk about hot springs, things get complicated. Temperatures vary from one warm or hot spring to another and hot springs contain a variety of minerals in differing amounts.

While some studies can point to positive effects of bathing in hot springs, there are no guidelines on how long or how often you’d have to bathe to see them. Here are some of the potential benefits of hot potting:

Relaxation and stress reduction

If you enjoy nature and hot water, the most obvious benefit from hot potting is simple relaxation.

Soaking in water can also help ease aches and pains, particularly of the joints. Reducing stress can help improve your outlook and overall physical and mental health.

Relief for skin conditions

Authors of a 2019 literature review suggest that mineral waters in Persia can reduce symptoms of psoriasis. Other skin conditions that may be treated with thermal waters include dermatitis and collagen vascular disorders.

Improving vascular function

Research from 2016 shows that hot water immersion may improve vascular function and blood pressure.

Burning calories

A small 2017 study found that bathing in hot water can help burn calories, especially for people who aren’t able to exercise.

Hot springs hold no magical powers. There is no proof that hot potting can:

  • detoxify the body
  • prevent any particular disease or health condition
  • cure health issues

The great variation in hot springs around the world means the risks also vary. Things to be concerned about when hot potting include:

Extreme temperature

The temperature of a hot spring may not be obvious when you first see it, and you could easily end up blistering your skin in seconds. Hot springs can cause significant burns, or kill instantly. Some hot springs are hot enough to boil and shoot water like a geyser.

High acidity

Some hot springs are highly acidic, which can severely burn your eyes or skin.

Harmful microorganisms

Natural springs contain many different microorganisms that can lead to waterborne diseases like infection, skin rash, and gastrointestinal illness.

Some areas prohibit entering hot springs — and for good reason. So, first and foremost, heed these warnings. Don’t ignore safety barriers, and make sure you use the utmost caution when walking near hot springs.

Advance planning will help you identify warm or hot springs that are safe to use. In the United States, you can check estimated water temperatures through the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

Here are a few other tips to keep in mind:

  • don’t hot pot alone
  • don’t submerge your head
  • avoid swallowing the water
  • make it a short soak
  • get out at the first sign of illness or burning, and seek medical help

Hot springs may be particularly dangerous if you:

  • have heart disease
  • are pregnant
  • are prone to slipping, falling, or fainting
  • have open cuts or sores

It’s also a good idea to speak with a doctor before you start soaking in hot springs.

Hot potting is the practice of soaking in thermal springs, something people have been doing for thousands of years. Some do it for the sheer appreciation of nature. Others do it for a sense of improved health and well-being.

There’s a lot of research regarding the health benefits of hot water immersion. But since there’s great variation in water temperature, acidity, and mineral content in thermal springs around the world, definitive studies are lacking.

A spring that reaches a temperature 122°F (50°C) is a hot spring, and should be approached with great caution. These springs can far exceed the boiling point of water. They can also be highly acidic. Hot springs have been known to cause severe burns and death.

When visiting hot springs, be sure to stick to approved springs and follow posted safety measures.