Are Saunas Good for Your Lungs and Respiratory Health?

Many people enjoy the experience of saunas because they are relaxing. Studies have suggested that exposure to dry sauna heat can offer numerous benefits from regular use. The benefits are known to help individuals with congestive heart failure, chronic pain, rheumatoid arthritis, chronic fatigue syndrome, depression, and more.

Sauna use is also known to help lung health. The heat from the sauna may improve individuals with chronic lung disease such as asthma and COPD. Saunas are also known to improve lung function in people with acute respiratory symptoms from colds and allergies. While it is clear that saunas have a profound effect on the lungs and body as a whole, does that mean it improves lung health or alters the course of respiratory disease?

Woman relaxing in dry sauna

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Physical Effects of Sauna Heat

Sauna bathing is known as whole-body thermotherapy or heat therapy. It is used in different forms in different parts of the world. Throughout time, saunas have been used for hygiene, health, social, and spiritual purposes.

There are different types of saunas, including:

  • The modern-day sauna: This follows the traditional Finnish-style sauna. These saunas have dry air with humidity ranging from 10 to 20%. There are increased periods of humidity and the temperature ranges between 80 to 100°C or 176 to 212°F. Other styles include the Turkish-style Hammam, and Russian Banya.
  • The infrared sauna: This is a dry heat sauna that has a temperature range between 45 to 60°C or 113 to 140°F. Overall, the different styles of saunas can be distinguished by the level of humidity, source of heating, and the style of construction.

There are several reasons that people use a sauna, including:

  • Relaxation
  • Skin rejuvenation
  • Anti-aging benefits
  • Stress reduction
  • Increased metabolism
  • Weight loss
  • Improved immune function
  • Improved sleep
  • Detoxification

Although these are popular reasons for sauna use, some of the noted benefits need more medical research to fully support them.

As far as medical benefits, there is research that shows sauna use has cardiovascular benefits. A study was conducted on middle-aged men that concluded frequent use of the sauna showed a high reduction of fatal cardiovascular outcomes.

Sauna and Lung Health

Dry heat is believed to enhance lung capacity and function. This includes potentially improving breathing for people with hay fever, bronchitis, fever, colds, and chronic respiratory conditions like asthma and
COPD. Studies suggest that sauna usages improves lung function by improving ventilation, forced expiratory volume, and vital capacity and volume. 

There was a study of 12 male participants with obstructive pulmonary disease. The study concluded that sauna use created a temporary improvement in lung function. Another study found sauna exposure created breathing improvements in patients with asthma or chronic bronchitis. In addition, other studies conducted show that frequent sauna use can aid in a reduced risk of pneumonia. With these benefits, scientists are still unclear about the process that is entailed in sauna therapy. As a
result, there is still inconclusive evidence of the effectiveness of sauna therapy in relieving certain respiratory symptoms. 

Acute Respiratory Symptoms

Some studies have suggested that saunas can help relieve symptoms of allergic rhinitis and mild upper respiratory tract infections. Sauna treatments in people with allergic rhinitis underwent a 6-week rehabilitation sauna program and reported improved peak nasal inspiratory flow rates.

Studies also looked at sauna use and the potential effects of COVID-19. Heat is noted as one of the oldest forms and still is one of the most common methods for destroying pathogens. If a sauna is used, the average temperature achieved that aids in pathogen control are the following: 60°C or 140°F for 30 min, 65°C or 149°F for 15 min, or 80°C or 176°F for 1 min. These temperatures and times have been shown to possibly reduce coronavirus infection. Although heat has a long history of therapeutic treatments, further studies need to be conducted to determine the specific temperatures and times that are required to “specifically deactivate SAR-CoV-2 in vivo,” the virus that causes COVID-19. 

As sauna bathing is commonly used for a respiratory ailment, further research is needed to confirm the full benefits and risks of sauna use and individuals with allergies or mild upper respiratory tract infections.

Chronic Respiratory Disease

The dry steam in sauna use is known to help individuals with asthma and COPD. This is due to improved lung drainage and reduced inflammation. Some of the research suggests that the benefits tend to work for a short time. 

For individuals with COPD, saunas are known to possibly help lung capacity and airway obstruction. Research was conducted to evaluate whether repeated heat therapy helps COPD patients. This consisted of sitting in a 60°C or 140°F sauna room for 15 minutes, followed by 30 minutes of being warmed with blankets once a day, 5 days a week, for a total of 20 times. In addition, they received conventional therapy, including medications. This group showed to have a larger lung capacity once the study was completed. The control group only received conventional therapy. Although more research needs to be conducted, this study did show that repeated heat therapy for COPD patients can possibly improve their airway obstruction. 

Although there is a lack of recent research, older studies suggest that sauna use is safe for individuals who have asthma. A 2017 study suggests that regular sauna bathing can prevent respiratory disease. The population study was of males 42-61. Although there are no contributing risk factors for a late onset of asthma or COPD, there is not enough evidence to conclude that sauna bathing has any benefit in the prevention of respiratory disease.

Possible Risks

Overall, saunas are safe for most people. With certain health conditions, saunas should be avoided. Individuals who have kidney disease, are pregnant, had a recent heart attack, have unstable angina, or severe aortic stenosis, which is narrowing of the major artery of the heart, should avoid the sauna.

A couple concerns of sauna use are the following:

  • Dehydration: During a sauna session an average person will pour out a pint of sweat. It is important to stay hydrated during your time. When you sweat in a sauna, toxins are released through sweating, so it is important to replace the water so you won’t get dehydrated.
  • Changes in blood pressure: During a session in the sauna, blood pressure can increase and decrease. Reports share that the pulse rate can jump by 30% or more. This doubles the amount of blood that the heart pumps by the minute. It is important to take the necessary precaution and talk to a healthcare professional before going to a sauna if you have a heart condition.

Spermatogenesis

Frequent sauna use may affect spermatogenesis, the origin and development of sperm cells within the male reproductive organs. It is advised that men who are actively pursuing parenthood may want to refrain from regular sauna use.

Precautions and Safety

There are some precautions and safety measures to keep in mind as you use the sauna, including:

  • Limit sauna use: 20 minutes or less is an adequate time to use the sauna. 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 after using the sauna. It is okay to drink water during time in the sauna as well.
  • Supervise children: Children should always be supervised in the sauna. Some groups advised that children under five should avoid using saunas while others have set the age limit even higher.    
  • Avoid cold showers: 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. 

Check With Your Doctor

Women who are pregnant or those with chronic medical conditions, such as hypertension, should speak with their doctor before using a sauna.

A Word From Verywell

Sauna use can be very relaxing for a lot of people. It is often used in addition to a workout and/or massage. Saunas are also known to provide a lot of health and wellness benefits.

It is important to take all of the necessary precautions to stay safe as you use a sauna. Although it has overall health benefits, don’t use the sauna as an alternative to any standard medical treatment. If you have any health ailment, especially chronic respiratory disease, it is important to speak with your doctor before using a sauna.

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