Why You Shouldn't Get a Massage When You're Sick
In January, my friend Katie and I took a girls' trip to Scottsdale, Arizona, and among our most-anticipated activities that long weekend was a relaxing afternoon at the spa. Things didn't go as planned, however, when she came down with a bad cold a few days before—and when we showed up for our appointments at VH Spa at Hotel Valley Ho, the therapist took one look at Katie and advised her to cancel her treatment that day.
While disappointing at first, it brought to light something that neither Katie (who's a nurse) nor I had considered before—that getting a massage when you're sick is not a good idea, and medical experts confirmed it.
"As tempting as it is to seek out things that make you feel better when you're sick, the definite answer is to completely avoid going for a massage—or any other personal care treatments (i.e., hair salon, nail salon, physical therapy, etc.)—when you're sick," says Maya Heinert, M.D., a Sacramento, California-based pediatric emergency medicine physician and spokesperson for RxSaver.
The reason for this is twofold: You are not doing yourself, or your service provider, any favors. When it comes to the personal impact (even if you're desperately seeking that mind-body connection), Dr. Heinert says getting a massage could potentially slow down the normal healing of your body. When you're sick, your body is doing everything it can to fight the illness. Your immune system is complex and includes your major organs, your circulatory system, and your lymphatic system. When you have a massage, your body receives input by way of pressure, heat, and movement—and these things combined may hinder your body's ability to combat an infection, and move waste through your lymphatic channels and gut, says Dr. Heinert. Not to mention, it can be painful, as your body is often more sensitive to the touch when sick. Plus, lying face-down for an extended period of time can exacerbate any congestion you're feeling too, she adds.
But what if you're on your way to recovery, as my friend Katie felt she was? Sadly, getting a massage is still out of the question, says Dr. Heinert. You need to allow your body to fully recover before booking that appointment. "If you fractured your ankle, you wouldn't go back to the gym to work out just when the immediate pain was gone; you would slowly work with your body to allow it to regain strength and get back to baseline status," she explains. The same is true if you're suffering from a viral infection. (Related: Is It OK to Work Out When You're Sick?)
Most common viral infections run their course in three to five days, and many people feel better in that time and are likely not contagious anymore, says Dr. Heinert. This means, if you feel okay, it's been five-plus days, and have no symptoms, you can book that massage. However, if you're still experiencing lagging symptoms such as coughing up phlegm, which can sometimes last for weeks, wait until that's gone to rebook your massage for the safety of others and your own health, she adds.
As for bacterial infections, when you can return for a massage depends on what you were dealing with, which greatly affects the level of possible transmission. For example, if you had a UTI that cleared up after antibiotics, there's no problem with going in for a massage. But if you had a respiratory infection, for example, there's no way to accurately determine when you're no longer contagious. So, you'd want to avoid close encounters with others, which includes that massage table, for as long as you're still on antibiotics, says Dr. Heinert.
Getting a massage when you're sick can also produce inflammation, especially if a therapist uses a technique called friction to break up adhered tissue (i.e., knots). "While this is great for relieving tight, sore muscles, when you are sick, you don't want to create any more inflammation," explains Kristy Zadrozny, a licensed massage therapist and certified labor doula based in New York City. Your body is already hard at work fighting external pathogens, which themselves can cause inflammation throughout the body when you're sick, so you don't want to provide more fuel to that fire. "This is why we eat easy-to-digest, nourishing foods, and stay hydrated when we are sick; the goal is to boost your immune system, not give it more work to do," explains Zadrozny.
The same is true when you feel you're on the verge of getting sick. If you get a massage when you *think* you might be coming down with a cold, you're more likely to get sick faster because the massage can spread the pathogens throughout your lymph nodes, says Zadrozny. Again, your immune system is already working hard to fight off an illness trying to break in, so let it rest, rather than giving it more work to do, she adds. (BTW, check out these brutally honest confessions from massage therapists.)
Still not sure if you should book (or cancel) that massage appointment your tight hamstrings desperately need? It all boils down to a simple, albeit maybe disappointing, rule: When you're sick, you should cancel your personal care appointments. "To seek the services of a masseuse or other care provider when you're sick is just plain selfish," says Dr. Heinert. Often, "you cannot fully know when you are contagious or not, and being in a public place and allowing people to breathe in your expired air is potentially exposing them."
When you're back to feeling like your healthy self again, go ahead and rebook that massage and treat yourself to a little self-care (or maybe even a CBD massage). In general, massages are useful in boosting your immune system and helping with lymphatic flow and drainage, says Bindiya Gandhi, M.D., a double-board certified family medicine physician in Atlanta. And yes, you can get one even if you're super-sore from a workout.