Are saunas bad for your lungs and respiratory system – that’s the question. The truth is that it’s rather the opposite. Saunas pose no risk to your respiratory system and on top of this, they can actually help in times of symptoms of asthma, cold, flu, or congestion.
Saunas are very powerful weapons in the maintenance of our health and with more research being published around infrared saunas, we are finally beginning to understand the benefits, mechanisms, and risks of them.
Where Did Saunas Come From?
Today’s saunas originate from the concept of ‘sauna bathing’. All in all, this is heat therapy originating in Finland and the Nordic part of Europe, then spreading outwards. In those cultures, saunas are used primarily for pleasure, culture, and socialization.
People will go to spend 5-20 minutes in these heated rooms, some of which are up to 100 degrees Celsius. They often interchange these heated room visits with time in a cool-off pool or shower.
Looking further into saunas, they’ve been around for 1,000s of years with evidence of them in Turkey, Russia, and other parts of the world. In each of these cultures, a sauna looked a little different. Some blended in other spa-esque treatments into.
Types of Saunas
The modern-day sauna follows the traditional Finnish-style sauna. These saunas have dry air with humidity ranging from 10% to 20%. There are increased periods of humidity, where the temperature ranges between 176 and a maximum of 212 degrees. Other styles include the Turkish-style Hammam and Russian Banya.
The infrared sauna is a dry heat sauna. It has a temperature range between 113 and 140 degrees.
Different types of saunas can be distinguished by their level of humidity, heating source, and construction style.
Understanding The Health Benefits
There are anecdotes out there of individuals who regularly take sauna sessions and end up attaining these massive health benefits. These anecdotes have long shown there’s something to saunas, and some even claim they’ve helped to reduce symptoms of acute and chronic conditions.
The biggest study ever conducted analyzing the benefits of a traditional sauna looked at the sauna habits of 2,300 men culled together over two decades. This study was published in 2015 and showed that the men who partook in a sauna 4-7 times a week had dramatically fewer deaths from heart disease or stroke.
In fact, it was shown to decrease the likelihood of any fatal event in a significant way. A follow-up study subsequently also confirmed saunas 4-7 times per week could reduce the risk of dementia as well.
What Does A Sauna Do For Our Respiratory System?
Regarding the impact that a sauna has on the respiratory system, the evidence is clear. It’s an excellent treatment to aid in clearing up symptoms and strengthening the system. Traditional saunas and infrared saunas both produce an increase in heart rate and widening of the blood vessels.
This increases blood flow, improves cardiovascular function, and moves nutrient-rich, oxygenated blood throughout the body. How does this help our lungs and our breathing? An increase in circulation in a sauna creates a more efficient system, something which benefits the respiratory system. High blood pressure suddenly will come down, reducing strain on our system.
The pain related to musculo-skeletal disorders reduces to such an extent that it almost disappears. Chronic tension headaches decrease. This all means your body’s working better. It’s pumping blood easier and breathing easier.
Improves Lung Function And Breathing In Vulnerable Individuals
If you suffer from lung diseases such as asthma or chronic bronchitis, a sauna will help your breathing and lungs. For years in fact, saunas have been included in treatment programs for breathing and respiratory issues. This is because the airway conductivity opens up easier when heat’s surrounding it.
This is why a sauna produces so many positive benefits in people with congestion. Any cold or flu symptoms like this disappear in five or ten minutes, if even. Another study found that frequent sauna visits reduced the chances of developing pneumonia.
If you have breathing issues, not only is a sauna enjoyable and relaxing but it’s an activity that helps. If you have an unstable heart or low blood pressure, saunas are not recommended. Otherwise though, it’s worth speaking to your doctor about if you fall into the category of individuals who have breathing issues or who are prone to lung complications.
Why Are Saunas So Effective With Long-term Risk Of Respiratory Illnesses?
Though these studies are readily available to be explored, we do not know the precise mechanisms on how saunas reduce the risk of respiratory diseases. The primary theory that’s believed is that the heat from saunas helps to increase moisture on congestion in the lungs therefore help draining them and improving ventilation.
At the same time, scientists see that saunas reduce inflammation and oxidative stress – both of which are connected to the development of chronic conditions and disease.
A sauna or heat therapy room is working from both sides – it’s attacking respiratory symptoms directly while also calming down the body in such a way that the cause of these chronic respiratory conditions are handled.
How Does A Steam Room Compare To A Sauna For Respiratory Benefits?
By some, steam rooms are actually preferred over saunas to treat respiratory conditions, and symptoms of flus and colds. Steam rooms are known to have a higher humidity setting than infrared saunas or traditional saunas.
If you are suffering from a chronic cough or lung problems, for example, you may not see more advantages to using a steam room for a chronic cough. Although saunas still present strong benefits, it’s worth looking at if a steam room is better for what you need it to do.
Although they are more expensive and can be more of a challenge to install, the argument can be made that a steam room is better.
Saunas and Lung Health
Acute Respiratory Symptoms
Though not conclusive, some studies have suggested that saunas can help relieve symptoms of allergic rhinitis (hay fever) and mild upper respiratory tract infections.
In one study, people who had been diagnosed with allergic rhinitis were randomly assigned to two groups. One group received education about their condition but otherwise lived as they normally would. Another received 30 minutes of sauna treatment three days a week for six weeks. Both groups were tested at the beginning and again at three weeks and six weeks.
The treatment group was found to have much greater improvements in peak nasal inspiratory flow rates (a measurement of nasal airflow during maximum inhalation) than the education group.
Heat is one of the oldest and most commonly used methods for destroying disease-causing organisms.
Although heat has a long history as a treatment, further studies need to be conducted to determine whether it works to deactivate the virus that causes COVID-19, and if so, at what specific temperatures and times. In addition, there is as yet no direct evidence that sauna use can decrease severity of disease in COVID-19 infection, or the infectivity of the COVID-19 virus specifically.
Some studies have found that saunas may help lung capacity and airway obstruction in people with COPD.
In one study, researchers evaluated whether repeated heat therapy helped people with COPD. This consisted of sitting in a 140-degree sauna for 15 minutes, followed by 30 minutes of sitting in warm blankets, once a day. Participants did this five days a week for a total of 20 times. Participants were also given conventional therapy, including medications. To fairly compare the effects of the heat therapy, another group of participants only received conventional therapy.
Four weeks later, the heat treatment group showed much larger changes in vital capacity and forced expiratory volume than the other group. However, no significant changes were seen in the distance walked at six minutes or symptoms reported.
Although more research needs to be conducted, this study showed that repeated heat therapy for people with COPD might improve their airway obstruction.
There is a lack of recent research, but older studies suggest that sauna use is safe for individuals who have asthma. In addition, a 2017 study of middle-aged White men suggests that regular sauna bathing may reduce acute and chronic respiratory conditions including COPD, asthma, and pneumonia in that population.
Using a sauna two or three times a week was associated with a lower risk of respiratory disease than using a sauna once a week or less. Using a sauna four or more times a week was associated with an even lower risk.
However, the limitations of the study design mean that there is not enough evidence to conclude that sauna use has a benefit in preventing respiratory disease.7 In addition, this study was based on self-reported history of sauna use, and therefore further research is needed.
Other Possible Health Benefits
There are several other reasons related to general wellness that people use a sauna, including:
- Skin rejuvenation
- Anti-aging benefits
- Stress reduction
- Increased metabolism
- Weight loss
- Improved immune function
- Improved sleep
Although these are popular reasons for sauna use, some need more medical research to fully support them. As far as more specific medical benefits, some studies have found that sauna use has heart-health benefits.
Overall, saunas are safe for most people. But if you have certain health conditions, you should avoid using saunas. For example, individuals who have kidney disease, are pregnant, had a recent heart attack, have unstable angina (chest pain), or have severe aortic stenosis (narrowing of the heart’s major artery) should avoid the sauna.
Concerns about sauna use include:
- Dehydration: During a sauna session, an average person will expel a pint of sweat through their pores. This releases toxins, but requires replacing the water lost to avoid getting dehydrated.
- Changes in blood pressure: During a session in the sauna, blood pressure can increase and decrease, while pulse rate can jump by 30% or more. This doubles the amount of blood that the heart pumps by the minute. As such, it is important to talk to a healthcare professional before going to a sauna if you have a heart condition.
Precautions and Safety
If your doctor says you can use the sauna, keep these precautions and safety measures in mind.
- Limit your time: Keep sauna use to less than 20 minutes. For first-time users, as little as five minutes is enough. It is important to see how the body reacts to the environment of the sauna.
- Hydrate: Drink two to four glasses of water after using the sauna. It is OK to drink water while in the sauna as well.
- Supervise children: Some pediatricians recommend children under six years old avoid saunas, since babies and young children have difficulty regulating their body temperature. Older children should always be supervised in the sauna, as some may experience symptoms such as dizziness.
- Avoid cold showers afterward: This may increase the risk of a cardiac event in people with pre-existing heart disease.
- Avoid alcohol: Alcohol promotes dehydration and increases the risk of arrhythmia, hypotension, and sudden death. Since saunas also cause water loss, steer clear of drinking before and after use until you’re fully rehydrated.
Saunas are often used to reduce stress, relax, and detoxify the body. Some evidence suggests that they may offer some other health benefits as well.
Limited research suggests that saunas may provide support for people with acute and chronic lung conditions. However, more studies are necessary to confirm the findings.
Even though saunas provide therapeutic benefits, they also carry certain risks like dehydration and changes in blood pressure. If you have any health conditions, especially heart disease or chronic respiratory disease, it is important to speak with your healthcare provider before using a sauna.