Are there any risks of sauna bathing?

Sauna risks

Saunas have become very popular in recent years as adjuncts to healthy living regimes. Many hotels, spas, and exercise facilities advocate and provide various types of saunas. However, you should take caution if you belong to a risk group discussed below.

Let’s Look at the Positives First

Saunas can be beneficial in creating a sense of wellbeing and inducing relaxation of the mind and body. According to Lasse Viinikka, Honorary President of the Finnish Sauna Association, these effects are caused by two physical changes occurring when sauna bathing. 

Saunas can create a feeling similar to the protective comfort state in the womb pre-birth, leading to relaxation of the body. The sense of wellbeing also occurs, Viiniikka says, due to the increase of endorphins in the brain. Endorphins, known sometimes as happy hormones, are released in the body to protect from pain and can create a sense of euphoria. 

Possible Health Effects of Sauna 

There are other health and social benefits associated with saunaing, but there are dangers too. They may be minimal, but certain groups need to heed them.

Respiratory Problems

The changes to the body during and after a sauna when temperatures are raised and then reduced rapidly are likened to the same strain as a brisk walk. For those with breathing difficulties or respiratory disease, Viinikka advises reducing the strain by lowering the steam temperature and limiting the time in the sauna. Those with serious problems may need to consult their physician first.

Heart Problems

In the sauna, the heat causes a drop in blood pressure as the blood vessels dilate. The quick cooling after-sauna process causes the veins to contract rapidly, resulting in a rise in blood pressure. These changes can make heart sufferers feel unsteady and unwell. 

Again, a consultation with a health care provider first may be necessary. Sufferers with known coronary heart disease or heart failure might have to consider avoiding saunas altogether.

Medications

Caution is also advised for anyone wearing medicated patches. The sauna heat can cause the drugs to be released more efficiently and an increase in drug concentration altering the dosage. The patches should be removed prior to bathing. 

Other medications should be avoided as well as recreational drugs, legal in some states. There is a chance of an adverse effect or increased chances of a fall or other accident in the sauna room.

Alcohol and Fevers

The dangers of alcohol are similar to the cautions for medications in that there is an increased chance of accidents. Drinkers can also experience rises in temperature and anyone with a fever or a condition resulting in hyperthermia should avoid overheating the body in saunas. 

Skin Problems

Generally, saunas are considered good for the skin but the wood used in some types of sauna may produce an allergic reaction. The high heat may not benefit those with rosacea, dry skin, or other skin conditions or may need the bather to keep temperatures down. Replacing lost fluids by drinking plenty of water may help avoid skin problems in those prone to them.

Pregnancy and Fertility

There have been some concerns over possible birth defects associated with sauna bathing. However, the studies have yet to show any serious connection. Dr Samer Ellaham, in a report in the American Journal of Medicine,* quotes the findings of other medical studies that show no conclusive link. 

Saunas are part of a regular pattern of daily life in Finland, and many mothers-to-be regularly take them with no adverse effects. Similarly, studies did not show any link to infertility, but research on both these issues is ongoing. 

Dizziness and Dehydration

Dizziness in the sauna may occur due to a rapid drop in blood pressure caused by vasodilation. This can be exacerbated by the use of beta-blockers that are prescribed as part of a drug protocol to reduce hypertension (high blood pressure) and cardiac arrhythmias. 

This medication prevents the normal response of the body to low blood pressure by increasing the heart rate (pulse).  Dizziness or even fainting may occur in these circumstances when rising from the sauna benches, says Viinikka, risking injuries and worrying situations.

Sweat is the natural response of the body to excess heat and should be a normal way to enjoy saunas without dizziness or fainting. However, too much heat, too frequently, may result in dehydration and feeling lightheaded. Diuretics prescribed for kidney or other medical reasons could increase the risk of dehydration. Taking sufficient fluids should avoid the problems.

Back to the Positives

Many people feel that regular saunaing is of great benefit to them. In some communities, saunas are a social tradition as well as a healthy option benefitting the mind, body, and spirit. Some studies suggest that there are real medical benefits in regular saunaing and drinking a lot of water. 

Replacing fluids is normal for sauna bathers. Dr. Toni Vanni (Terveystalo Clinic) links this to lowering the risk of vascular disease, possibly easing asthmatic and flu symptoms, and relieving muscular disorders. 

Certain skin conditions may also be improved by sauna bathing. Lasse Viinikka cautions that the good effects of sauna cannot compensate for professional medical treatment and medication.

Caution

Finnish saunas are very hot but are not dangerous if due care is taken. This includes cooling off immediately any discomfort is felt. It is advisable to cool off in the outdoor air rather than go straight to sudden cooling methods. Taking adequate fluids to replace losses is necessary, but you should avoid excessive amounts.

Takeaway

Saunas are enjoyable and healthy if used wisely. Under normal circumstances, saunas increase body heat which lowers blood pressure and raises the heart rate to compensate. The strain on the heart is only as much as a brisk walk and safe for most bathers. 

Sweat reduces body heat and drinking adequate amounts of water soon restores the balance. Some people fall into one or higher risk groups and caution or medical advice may be necessary.

* Citation: Hannuksela ML, Ellahham S. Benefits and risks of sauna bathing. The American journal of medicine. 2001 Feb 1;110 (2):118-26.

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