How to survive cold and flu season as an RMT

Ah, cold and flu season. All across the country, people are stocking up on hand sanitizer, tissues, and chicken soup in anticipation of that first traitorous sneeze. Most of us are extra careful about germs this time of year, but it’s especially important for massage therapists. Because you work directly with people’s bodies, you have a slightly higher risk of catching infections like colds and the flu than the average population. You’re also more at risk of passing it on.

Getting sick with this kind of contagious infection means interrupting your practice and cancelling clients, which no one wants to do. And in the case of the flu, there can be even more serious consequences — this year’s flu season has already led to 69 hospitalizations in Alberta.

So what can massage therapists do to increase their chances of making it through flu season infection-free? Here are our tips:

1. Wash your hands (and your clinic)!

This is common sense advice, of course, and it applies to clients and therapists alike. One of the best safeguards against catching and spreading viruses and other pathogens is to break the chain of infection. In cold and flu season, all of the standard precautions that you take when it comes to personal and clinic hygiene—such as disinfecting your table and other surfaces between clients, keeping nails trimmed, using flip-top or pump dispensers to prevent cross-contamination of oils and lotion, and of course washing your hands—are even more important.

Washing Hands by peapod labs on flickr. Licensed under CC 2.0

Hands are the number one way that diseases like cold and flu are spread, so it’s worth reminding yourself of best practices in this area and seeing if there’s anything you can do to improve your habits. Here are some handy (pun intended!) online resources from the Centers for Disease Control and Alberta Health Services about good handwashing technique, including posters for your clinics. And we recommend using regular liquid soap (rather than the antibacterial kind) and using the paper towel you’re drying your hands with to turn off the faucet and turn the doorknob.

And don’t forget that anything you or your clients touch in your clinic can harbour germs, so regularly cleaning well-used surfaces is a must. When you’re looking around the office for things to wipe once you’ve done the phone receiver and massage table, don’t forget less obvious surfaces like the lotion bottles, doorknobs, your cell phone, and debit machine.

It’s also a good idea not to touch things that you don’t have to. Speaking of the debit machine, don’t handle clients’ cards—instead, consider allowing clients to use the hand-held device themselves while you stick to the main console. And if you currently fetch each client a glass of water after their massage, perhaps put an attractive pitcher of ice water on a stand with glasses and encourage them to help themselves instead. 

2. Take a sick day (and have your clients do the same)

Giving someone a massage when you’re sick isn’t fair to them, and massaging a sick client isn’t fair to you. If you think you have the flu, you should cancel your appointments. Your clients will undoubtedly be disappointed (because you’re such a great therapist!), but they’ll appreciate your professionalism.

If a client shows up for an appointment exhibiting symptoms that make you suspect they may be contagious, exercise your judgement. Should you proceed with the appointment, and perhaps perform a modified massage, or reschedule them for when they’re feeling better? Of course, if they’re in the throes of the flu it’s unlikely they want to do anything other than curl up in bed with hot tea and Netflix, but remember that whether to give them a massage is your choice. Keep in mind that a fever of 38.5°C or above is an absolute general contraindication for massage, and that massage can exacerbate cold and flu symptoms. If you feel it’s best to reschedule, explain your reasons and your client will respect your caution.

You might reduce your chance of disappointing clients by putting a little bit of information about the issue on your clinic website—some basic guidelines educating them on when massage is and isn’t appropriate could be a great service for both of you.  

3. Take care of yourself first

Cold and flu viruses are opportunistic jerks. They will take advantage of any chink in your armour to try to make you sick, and when you’re stressed out, overtired, or otherwise run down your immune defences won’t be firing at full capacity. So looking after your own general wellness is a key step in keeping the bugs away. Eat well, stay hydrated, get plenty of sleep, exercise, and keep on top of any existing health conditions you may already be experiencing. The flu vaccine is available without an appointment at many pharmacies, and there is still time for it to take effect before the predicted “peak” of the season in late December if you choose to get it.

It’s easy to let these things slide, especially as the holidays are coming up. But it’s difficult to take care of others if you’re not looking after yourself as well. So treat yourself with the same respect you offer your clients, and look after that body!


We hope that this helps you and your clients stay healthy and happy this season. Do you have anything to add to the discussion? Please share your experiences and advice in the comments.


Sources: The information in this post comes from our experienced instructors, and from our curriculum. For more information, we recommend “Massage Therapy: Principles and Practice” by Susan Salvo.

Salvo, S. G. (2012). Massage therapy: Principles and practice. St. Louis, MO: Elsevier.  



Robin Collum
Author: Robin Collum