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7 Dangers of the Sauna

Written by Dr. Group, DC
Burns is one of many dangers of the sauna.

Sauna therapy has been used for hundreds of years in Scandinavia and is an extremely health-promoting activity. Research has linked it to many benefits, especially for persons with cardiovascular ailments and skin conditions. Additionally, evidence supports the use of saunas for body cleansing and detoxification.[1]

Dangers of the Sauna

While those benefits are great, they don't mean that saunas are not without their risks. Let's take a look at a few of the concerns that can arise from sauna use.

1. Burns

In Finland, at least one sauna burn a day requires hospitalization and one out of four burns is sauna-related.[2] Most burns are accidental contact burns that result from touching the heater or nearby hot surfaces. Such burns are often minor but can occasionally be serious, even fatal. In Germany in 2007, it was reported that a 64-year-old man fell face first onto his sauna stove and subsequently died from his injuries.[3]

Sauna burns can also result from exposure to hot air as temperatures often reach 190F and can even go above that. An uncomfortable burning sensation will often be the catalyst that makes most people simply get up and leave a sauna, making hot air sauna burns somewhat rare. However, they do happen and can be fatal if they penetrate through all layers of the skin. When this happens, aggressive intervention is vital and, unfortunately, amputations are common.[4] Want to avoid this scenario? Don't drink alcohol and pass out in the sauna![5]

2. Reproductive Effects

Men who are or will be trying to conceive a child may want to think twice before using a sauna. As body heat rises, so does testicle temperature, and this has been known to reduce sperm count. Although the effect is reversible, it may not be immediately reversible.[6] One study found that sperm count decreased within a week of sauna exposure and did not return to normal until five weeks after.[7] Additionally, pregnant women should be aware that sauna use during early pregnancy may cause embryonic or fetal abnormalities.[8]

3. May Not Kill All Harmful Organisms

A warm, moist environment like a sauna can be the perfect environment for organisms to grow and thrive. Fungal infections such as athlete's foot and toenail fungus can be easily spread under these conditions. The Journal of the American Medical Association reported a case of a young man who, after regularly using the sauna, developed fever and chills that progressed to shortness of breath and fatigue. The cause? He regularly poured water over the sauna heater… from a bucket that contained mold.[9]

4. Don't Drink the Water!

The heat and sweat-inducing environment of a sauna are bound to make you thirsty. However, be cautious of the water you choose to drink! Some saunas or steam baths are connected to well water or otherwise nonpotable water that is to be used for washing, not drinking. Algeria's Université Djillali-Liabès analyzed the water from ten Turkish baths in Sidi-Bel-Abbes and found that 50% of them had fecal contamination.[10]

5. Don't Use a Sauna to Lose Weight

You may have heard some ill-informed people describe a sauna as being able to "melt away the pounds." Descriptions like that conjure up ideas of fat melting away like heated butter. However, that's not an idea based in reality, the weight that's lost in a sauna is largely water weight and reductions in water weight are not effective or reliable forms of weight control but that hasn't stopped some people from trying. In 1991, the Department of Psychiatry at the University of Minnesota Medical School released a report outlining 14 bulimic patients who routinely spent long periods of time in saunas as a weight-control technique. It was noted that the sauna abuse, coupled with diuretic and laxative abuse, caused all subjects to experience dehydration.[11]

6. Resist the Polar Plunge

For many people, it's a part of the ceremony to take a plunge in snow or ice water after a sauna. Believe it or not, the extreme jolt provides a stimulating effect that many people enjoy. However, this isn't safe for everyone, and persons with cardiovascular issues should avoid the abrupt temperature change produced by an icy dip. Japan's St. Marianna University School of Medicine reported in 1998 of a patient who had gone from the sauna to cold water and experienced a heart attack as a result.[12]

7. Death

Your body is meant to operate at 98.7F and a core temperature increase to 105F constitutes a serious medical emergency. That said, temperatures of over 190F are not to be endured indefinitely. A sauna is meant to be relaxing, not a torture device. Staying inside far longer than you should as some sort of endurance activity is extremely ill-advised. In 2010, at the World Sauna Championships, one of the finalists, Russian Vladimir Ladyzhensky, died after extreme heat exposure.

Avoid Concerns — Use the Sauna Safely

Regularly using a sauna can rejuvenate your mind and body in ways you never imagined. The Canadian Sauna Society advises that saunas are generally safe for healthy people and are tolerated quite well.[13] However, be smart, and be safe. Don't stay in longer than is comfortable. Do stay hydrated. Do head for the door if you begin to feel sick. Do be aware that nobody thinks it'll happen to them. Additionally, one of the most important requirements for sauna safety is to not combine it with alcohol use. Finland has a number of fatalities every year due to persons combining the sauna with alcohol. Don't make this mistake.[14] Combining alcohol consumption and the sauna can lead to serious, immediate emergencies, including cardiac arrhythmias. Furthermore, if you think the sauna is the place to "sweat it out," think again. The risk extends to the hangover phase as well.[15]

References (15)
  1. Crinnion WJ. Sauna as a valuable clinical tool for cardiovascular, autoimmune, toxicant- induced and other chronic health problems. Altern Med Rev. 2011 Sep;16(3):215-25.
  2. Papp A. Sauna-related burns: a review of 154 cases treated in Kuopio University Hospital Burn Center 1994-2000. Burns. 2002 Feb;28(1):57-9.
  3. Guddat SS, Tsokos M. [Death on a sauna stove]. Institut für Rechtsmedizin der Charité, Universitätsmedizin Berlin.
  4. Koljonen V. [Burn injuries caused by sauna air]. Duodecim. 2009;125(13):1407-13.
  5. Kortelainen ML. Hyperthermia deaths in Finland in 1970-86. Am J Forensic Med Pathol. 1991 Jun;12(2):115-8.
  6. Saikhun J, et al. Effects of sauna on sperm movement characteristics of normal men measured by computer-assisted sperm analysis. Int J Androl. 1998 Dec;21(6):358-63.
  7. Brown-Woodman PD, et al. The effect of a single sauna exposure on spermatozoa. Arch Androl. 1984;12(1):9-15.
  8. Crinnion WJ. Sauna as a valuable clinical tool for cardiovascular, autoimmune, toxicant- induced and other chronic health problems. Altern Med Rev. 2011 Sep;16(3):215-25.
  9. Metzger WJ, et al. Sauna-takers disease. Hypersensitivity pneumonitis due to contaminated water in a home sauna. JAMA. 1976 Nov 8;236(19):2209-11.
  10. Benouis K, et al. [Is Turkish bath water potable?: The baths of Sidi-Bel-Abbes]. Sante. 2008 Apr-Jun;18(2):63-6. doi: 10.1684/san.2008.0112.
  11. Mitchell JE, et al. Sauna abuse as a clinical feature of bulimia nervosa. Psychosomatics. 1991 Fall;32(4):417-9.
  12. Imai Y, et al. Acute myocardial infarction induced by alternating exposure to heat in a sauna and rapid cooling in cold water. Cardiology. 1998;90(4):299-301.
  13. Kauppinen K. Facts and fables about sauna. Ann N Y Acad Sci. 1997 Mar 15;813:654-62.
  14. Kenttämies A, Karkola K. Death in sauna. J Forensic Sci. 2008 May;53(3):724-9. doi: 10.1111/j.1556-4029.2008.00703.x.
  15. Ylikahri R, et al. The sauna and alcohol. Ann Clin Res. 1988;20(4):287-91.

†Results may vary. Information and statements made are for education purposes and are not intended to replace the advice of your doctor. If you have a severe medical condition or health concern, see your physician.


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