Are Saunas Good for Your Lungs and Respiratory Health?

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Many people enjoy the experience of saunas because they are relaxing. Some people and facilities have also suggested that exposure to dry sauna heat may offer numerous specific health benefits. However, there is not sufficient evidence to support saunas as a treatment for specific conditions.

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

Potential Benefits of Using a Sauna

Verywell / Ellen Lindner

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.

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, where the temperature ranges between 80-100 C or 176-212 F. Other styles include the Turkish-style Hammam and Russian Banya.
  • The infrared sauna: This is a dry heat sauna with a temperature range between 45-60 C or 113-140 F. Overall, the different styles of saunas can be distinguished by the level of humidity, heating source, and construction style.

Benefits

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, some studies have found that sauna use has cardiovascular (heart) benefits. For example, 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

A 2018 review of evidence in Mayo Clinic Proceedings suggests that sauna usage may improve lung function by improving ventilation, forced expiratory volume, and vital capacity and volume. Specifically, the review found:

  • A study of 12 male participants with obstructive pulmonary disease 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 showed that frequent sauna use could aid in a reduced risk of pneumonia.

With these benefits, scientists are still unclear about the process involved in sauna therapy. As a result, the evidence of the effectiveness of sauna therapy in relieving certain respiratory symptoms is considered inconclusive.

Acute Respiratory Symptoms

Some studies have suggested that saunas can help relieve symptoms of allergic rhinitis and mild upper respiratory tract infections.

In one study, people with allergic rhinitis underwent a 6-week rehabilitation sauna program. Participants in that study reported improved peak nasal inspiratory flow rates.

Studies have also looked at the potential for sauna use to reduce COVID-19 infectivity. For example, one study suggests that when saunas are used at certain temperatures and for certain lengths of time, they may reduce coronavirus infection.

If a sauna is used, the average temperature that aids in pathogen control are the following:

60 C or 140 F for 30 minutes

65 C or 149 F for 15 minutes

80 C or 176 F for 1 minute


Heat is one of the oldest and commonly used methods for destroying pathogens. Although heat has a long history of treatments, further studies need to be conducted to determine the specific temperatures and times required to “specifically deactivate SAR-CoV-2 in vivo,” the virus that causes COVID-19.

The full benefits and risks of sauna use on individuals with allergies or mild upper respiratory tract infections are not conclusive.

Chronic Respiratory Disease

Some studies have found that, for individuals with chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) and asthma, saunas may help lung capacity and airway obstruction.

In one study, researchers evaluated whether repeated heat therapy helped people with COPD. 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. Participants did this five days a week for a total of 20 times.

In addition, they received conventional therapy, including medications. After the study was completed, this group had a larger lung capacity than the control group, who only received conventional therapy.

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 on middle-aged White men suggests that regular sauna bathing may reduce acute and chronic respiratory conditions (including COPD, asthma, and pneumonia) in that population.

Although there are no contributing risk factors for late-onset asthma or COPD, there is not enough evidence to conclude that sauna bathing has any 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 to confirm the findings.

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, 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 pour out a pint of sweat. When you sweat in a sauna, toxins are released, so it is important to replace the water 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. So, it is important to 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 the development of sperm cells. Therefore, people with testicles 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. They include:

  • Limit sauna use: 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 after using the sauna. It is okay to drink water during the time in the sauna as well.
  • Supervise children: Children should always be supervised in the sauna.
  • 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

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

Summary

Saunas are often used to reduce stress, relax, and detoxify. In addition, some evidence suggests that they may offer some health benefits, too.

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.

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.

If you have any health condition, especially heart disease or chronic respiratory disease, it is important to speak with your doctor before using a sauna.

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