Are Saunas Good for Your Lungs and Respiratory Health?

There is some research supporting certain health benefits of saunas, including improved lung function. However, the evidence is not sufficient to support the use of saunas as a treatment for specific conditions such as asthma and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD).

This article explains the general effects of saunas, how they may impact lung health, and how to stay safe while using one.

Types of Saunas

Sauna bathing is known as whole-body thermotherapy or heat therapy. It is used in different forms in different parts of the world.

What Is Thermotherapy?

Thermotherapy or "heat therapy" uses heat to treat symptoms.

Throughout time, saunas have been used for hygiene, health, social, and spiritual purposes. There are a couple of different types of saunas.

Modern-Day Sauna

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 212 degrees. Other styles include the Turkish-style Hammam and Russian Banya.

Infrared Sauna

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.

Saunas and Lung Health

A 2018 review of several studies, published in Mayo Clinic Proceedings, suggests that sauna usage may improve lung function. The review found saunas may improve breathing, forced expiratory volume (how much air you can let out during a forced breath), and vital capacity (the maximum air that can be exhaled after maximal air has been inhaled).

In the review, one study of 12 male participants with obstructive pulmonary disease concluded that sauna use created a temporary improvement in lung function. Another study found that sauna exposure created breathing improvements in patients with asthma or chronic bronchitis. Other studies showed that frequent sauna use was associated with a reduced risk of pneumonia.

Despite this, scientists are still unclear about the associations between health benefits and sauna use. As a result, the evidence of the effectiveness of sauna therapy in relieving certain respiratory symptoms is considered inconclusive.

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.

Studies have also looked at the potential for sauna use to reduce the spread of COVID-19.

A brief review published early in the COVID-19 pandemic looked at the effect of heat on other coronaviruses, including the viruses that cause Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS-CoV) and Middle East Respiratory Syndrome (MERS-CoV). In laboratory conditions, even temperatures below those in a traditional-style sauna could reduce coronavirus infectivity by 99.99% or more:

  • 140 degrees for 30 minutes for SARS-CoV
  • 149 degrees for 15 minutes for SARS-CoV and MERS-CoV

Heat is one of the oldest and 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.

COPD

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 bigger changes in vital capacity and forced expiratory volume than the other group.

Although more research needs to be conducted, this study showed that repeated heat therapy for people with COPD might improve their airway obstruction.

Asthma

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.

Recap

There is limited evidence that saunas are therapeutic for lung conditions. However, several smaller-scale studies have suggested that saunas may benefit people with COPD, asthma, pneumonia, allergies, and even COVID-19. Further research is needed.

Other Possible Health Benefits

Potential Benefits of Using a Sauna

Verywell / Ellen Lindner

There are several other reasons related to general wellness 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 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. For example, a study conducted on middle-age men concluded that frequent use of a sauna was associated with a high reduction of fatal cardiovascular outcomes.

Risks

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 to replace the water lost to avoid getting dehydrated.
  • Changes in blood pressure: During a session in the sauna, blood pressure can increase and decrease, and 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.

Does Sauna Use Kill Sperm?

Frequent sauna use may affect spermatogenesis, which is the origin and development of sperm cells. Therefore, people with testicles who are actively pursuing parenthood may want to refrain from regular sauna use.

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: Kids 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. Steer clear of drinking before and immediately after use.

Summary

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 condition, especially heart disease or chronic respiratory disease, it is important to speak with your healthcare provider before using a sauna.

A Word From Verywell

It is important to take all of the necessary precautions to stay safe when you use a sauna. Although it has overall health benefits, don’t use the sauna as an alternative to any standard medical treatment.

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