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, their risks, and potential benefits, 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.

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 176 and 212 degrees 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 113 and 140 degrees F.

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 by improving ventilation, forced expiratory volume, and vital capacity and volume.

Included in the review were:

  • A study of 12 male participants with obstructive pulmonary disease, which concluded that sauna use created a temporary improvement in lung function
  • Another study which found that sauna exposure created breathing improvements in patients with asthma or chronic bronchitis
  • Other studies which showed that frequent sauna use could aid in a reduced risk of pneumonia

Despite this, 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

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 with allergic rhinitis underwent a six-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 temperatures that aids in pathogen control are the following:

140 degrees F for 30 minutes

149 degrees F for 15 minutes

176 degrees 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.

Chronic Respiratory Disease

Some studies have found that saunas may help lung capacity and airway obstruction in people with COPD or asthma.

In one study, researchers evaluated whether repeated heat therapy helped people with COPD. This consisted of sitting in 140-degree 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-age 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.

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 was conducted on middle-age men that concluded frequent use of the sauna showed 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 OK's you to 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 after using the sauna. It is OK to drink water while in the sauna as well.
  • Supervise children: Children should always be supervised in the sauna.
  • 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.

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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