Tips on how to protect your health when visiting a nail saloon.

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ST. LOUIS — To Kelly Messmer, the nail salon seemed clean. She didn’t notice anything amiss as she soaked her feet in the pedicure chair’s whirlpool.

But soon after visiting the salon, she started getting small red bumps on her legs. A few got bigger and turned into boils. One grew to the size of a baseball and oozed. She went to two different dermatologists, who took biopsies and tried steroid injections. For a year, they couldn’t figure out what was causing the unsightly sores.

“I had no idea what was going on,” said Messmer, 36, of south St. Louis County, Mo. “It was scary.”

At the end of her rope, she flew to the Mayo Clinic in Scottsdale, Ariz. The first thing the doctor asked her was, “Do you get pedicures?”

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A culture confirmed that Messmer’s boils were the result of a mycobacterium infection. The bacterium is commonly found in water, but when trapped behind a foot spa’s recirculation screen along with clients’ oil, skin and nail clippings — the warm, wet climate becomes a perfect breeding ground for the germs to multiply to dangerous levels.

“I was just angry that something like this could happen,” Messmer said. “I was just dumbfounded.”

Many states enacted rules and regulations regarding the sanitation of the foot spas after outbreaks in 2000 and 2004 in California left more than more than 200 people infected. But Messmer’s story shows consumers also have to be their own watchdog and aware of symptoms.

To protect yourself, experts warn not to shave or use hair removal creams or waxes on your legs 24 hours before a pedicure (Messmer had just shaved); and put off the pampering if you have any open wounds such as cuts, bug bites or poison ivy. They also suggest asking salon workers how the foot spas are maintained and how often.

“Don’t be afraid to tell the person, ‘I don’t like this,”‘ Ford said. “You shouldn’t be afraid to hurt anyone’s feelings when it comes down to your own safety and hygiene.”

Bluthardt also encourages consumers to make sure the salon and its nail technicians are licensed, which ensures they have met educational requirements.

St. Louis University dermatologist Amy Cheng said a mycobacterium infection can be difficult to diagnose because standard cultures won’t catch it. Treatment also requires specific antibiotics. Messmer said she needed six months of medications to clear up her infection.

She is left with three large, dark scars. “I’m never going to be without these,” she said.

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