Is Sauna Good for a Cold? Unveiling the Science

Last updated on October 17th, 2023 at 08:29 pm

We’ve all heard the advice before: “Just sweat it out.” Whether it’s from a well-meaning friend or a fitness guru on social media, the notion that you can simply sweat out a common cold is pervasive. 

But how much truth is there to this claim? Could stepping into a sauna actually benefit you when you’re dealing with a runny nose, a sore throat, and an overall sense of malaise? 

In this article, we’ll explore the science behind the claim and answer the question: “Is sauna good for a cold?

is sauna good for a cold?

What is a Sauna?

The word “sauna” often conjures up images of wooden cabins filled with hot air, where individuals sit in a near-meditative state as they sweat profusely. Originating from Finland, the traditional sauna is a small room or building designed to induce sweating through the use of dry heat, generally provided by a stove that heats up rocks.

The temperature can range from 150 to 195°F (65 to 90°C), effectively raising the body’s temperature and triggering a host of physiological responses.

However, saunas are not a one-size-fits-all experience. Infrared saunas, for example, use infrared light to heat your body directly rather than heating the air around you. These saunas operate at a slightly lower temperature, generally around 120 to 150°F (49 to 65°C), and offer a different set of health benefits.

Steam rooms, often confused with saunas, employ humidified air to create a hot, moist environment. In these rooms, the heat is wetter and the temperature ranges between 110 and 120°F (43 to 49°C), providing a distinct sensory experience compared to the dry heat of a traditional sauna.

Each type of sauna has its own set of purported health benefits, and people use them for a variety of reasons—from relaxation and stress relief to muscle recovery and improved blood circulation. But when it comes to alleviating the symptoms of the common cold, which type of sauna should you consider? We’ll delve into that next.


Understanding the Common Cold

The common cold is a viral infection affecting the nose and throat, primarily caused by rhinoviruses. Symptoms usually include a runny or stuffy nose, sneezing, a sore throat, and sometimes a low-grade fever. While generally mild, these cold symptoms can be incredibly disruptive, affecting your daily life and leaving you seeking quick relief.

Your immune system plays a critical role in combating cold and flu viruses. When you catch a cold, your immune system starts working overtime to fight off the invader. Specialized cells identify the virus and work to neutralize it, a process that usually takes around 7 to 10 days.

There are no cures for the common cold, but various over-the-counter medications and home remedies aim to alleviate symptoms. That brings us to the idea of using a sauna as a potential remedy. 

Can the heat from a sauna influence your body’s temperature and immune response enough to make a difference in your recovery?

In the sections that follow, we’ll explore the interplay between saunas and your immune system, and how this might affect the duration and severity of your common cold symptoms.

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The Science Behind Saunas

Saunas are more than just a relaxing escape; they bring about physiological changes that can potentially offer a range of health benefits.

One of the most immediate effects of entering a sauna is the elevation of your body temperature. As the hot air or infrared light heats your skin, your core temperature starts to rise, stimulating blood flow throughout your body.

Heat Therapy and Its Effects on the Body

Often referred to as heat therapy, the high-temperature environment of a sauna can trigger various biological responses. For one, it increases blood circulation, which allows oxygen and nutrients to more efficiently reach cells and tissues.

This improved blood flow can aid in muscle recovery and may even offer some cardiovascular benefits.

Health Benefits Commonly Associated With Sauna Use

Frequent sauna use has been linked to a number of health benefits, from reducing stress and improving sleep quality to enhancing cardiovascular health.

Studies have even explored the impact of regular sauna sessions on conditions like high blood pressure and cardiovascular disease, although more research is needed to draw conclusive results.

Body Temperature and Immune Response

Elevating body temperature through sauna use mimics a fever, a natural mechanism your body employs to fight off infections.

While a temporary rise in body temperature won’t cure a cold, it may stimulate the immune system, making it more active and responsive in combating cold and flu viruses.

By understanding the science behind saunas, we can better assess their potential role in alleviating common cold symptoms and boosting your immune system. In the next section, we’ll delve into whether or not a sauna can help you “sweat out” a cold.


Can You Sweat Out a Cold in a Sauna?

The idea of “sweating out” a cold is a widespread belief. Proponents argue that the act of sweating can flush toxins from your body, leading to faster recovery. But what does science say?

Sweating Out Toxins – A Closer Look

Firstly, it’s important to clarify that the common cold is caused by a viral infection, not toxins. While sweating can help regulate body temperature and does remove some waste products, there’s no scientific evidence to suggest that you can sweat out a virus like the common cold.

Immune System Activation

As discussed earlier, saunas can temporarily raise your body temperature, mimicking a fever. A fever is your body’s natural response to infection, activating various components of the immune system to fight off viruses.

While it’s tempting to think that a sauna could offer a similar benefit, there is limited research to support this notion. Most studies have focused on the general activation of the immune system rather than specific effects on cold and flu viruses.

Temporary Symptom Relief

What saunas can offer is temporary symptom relief. The hot air and steam can help loosen nasal mucus, providing some respite from a stuffy nose. Moreover, the relaxation effects can potentially alleviate muscle soreness that often accompanies a cold.

The Verdict

While the notion of sweating out a cold in a sauna is largely a myth, using a sauna could offer some temporary relief from cold symptoms. However, it’s not a substitute for proper medical treatment, and those with certain health conditions should consult a healthcare provider before stepping into the hot, humid air of a sauna.


Impact on Cold Symptoms

While a sauna may not cure your cold, it can provide some temporary relief from symptoms. Let’s take a closer look at how sauna sessions can affect various cold symptoms:

Sore Throat

  • The humid air in steam rooms can temporarily soothe a sore throat by adding moisture to dry, irritated tissues.

Muscle Soreness

  • Improved blood flow during sauna use can aid in muscle recovery, offering relief from the muscle soreness that sometimes accompanies a cold.

Blood Pressure

  • Saunas have been shown to temporarily reduce blood pressure. However, this effect is not directly related to alleviating cold symptoms and may not be suitable for everyone, especially those with existing cardiovascular conditions.

Nasal Congestion

  • Both hot steam and humid air can help loosen nasal mucus, making it easier to breathe when dealing with a stuffy nose.

Body Temperature

  • Raising your body temperature may activate your immune system, though this effect is not proven to directly combat cold and flu viruses.

Temporary Symptom Relief

  • Overall, saunas offer temporary symptom relief, making you feel better for a short period even if they don’t speed up recovery from a cold.

It’s crucial to remember that while saunas can offer some relief, they are not a substitute for medical treatment. Always consult your healthcare provider if you have prolonged or severe cold symptoms.


Steam Sauna vs. Hot Air Sauna for Colds

When it comes to treating cold symptoms, not all saunas are created equal. The two main types you’ll encounter are steam saunas and traditional hot air saunas, each offering its own set of advantages and drawbacks in the context of cold relief.

Steam Sauna

  • Humidified Air: The moist environment can be soothing for respiratory symptoms like a stuffy nose or sore throat.

  • Loosen Nasal Mucus: The steam helps to open up nasal passages by loosening mucus, offering temporary relief from congestion.

  • Skin Hydration: The steam can be beneficial for your skin, although this doesn’t directly affect cold symptoms.

Hot Air Sauna (often called Finnish Sauna)

  • Dry Heat: Less humidity means less direct relief for respiratory issues, but some find the dry air easier to breathe.

  • Body Temperature: A hot air sauna can more effectively raise your core body temperature, which some believe may aid your immune system in fighting off viruses.

  • Blood Flow: The high temperature stimulates blood circulation, potentially aiding muscle recovery.

Infrared Sauna

  • Direct Heating: Infrared saunas heat the body directly, which might provide more targeted muscle soreness relief.

  • Lower Temperature: They operate at lower temperatures, which some may find more tolerable, especially when feeling under the weather.

Which is Better for Colds?

While both types of saunas can offer temporary relief from cold symptoms, steam saunas may be more effective for respiratory issues due to the humid air.

On the other hand, if you’re looking to possibly stimulate your immune system through elevated body temperature, a hot air sauna might be the better choice.

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Risks and Precautions

While saunas can offer some temporary relief from cold symptoms, it’s crucial to understand the associated risks and take necessary precautions before diving into a sauna session.

Elevated Blood Pressure

  • Saunas can temporarily elevate blood pressure, posing a risk for those with hypertension or cardiovascular disease.

Dehydration

  • The high temperatures and sweating can lead to dehydration, which can be particularly concerning when you’re already feeling unwell.

Pre-existing Health Conditions

  • Individuals with certain conditions, such as cardiovascular issues or respiratory disorders, should consult their healthcare provider before using a sauna.

Pregnancy

  • Pregnant women are generally advised to avoid saunas due to potential risks like elevated body temperature affecting fetal development.

Overheating

  • Extended exposure to high temperatures can lead to overheating and heat exhaustion, symptoms of which include dizziness, nausea, and fainting.

Children and Elderly

  • Both the very young and the elderly are more susceptible to the risks associated with saunas and should exercise extreme caution.

Precautionary Measures

  • Stay Hydrated: Drink plenty of fluids before and after your sauna session.

  • Time Limit: Limit your time in the sauna to 15-20 minutes, especially if you’re new to sauna use or feeling unwell.

  • Supervision: Never go into a sauna alone, especially when you’re not feeling well.

  • Listen to Your Body: If you start to feel dizzy, nauseous, or uncomfortable in any way, exit the sauna immediately.

Before using a sauna for cold relief, it’s essential to weigh the risks and consult a healthcare provider, particularly if you have existing health conditions or are pregnant.


Finnish Sauna Tradition and Colds

The sauna tradition is deeply embedded in Finnish culture, often considered more than a mere form of relaxation but a lifestyle. With Finland boasting more saunas than cars, this centuries-old practice is believed by many to offer a myriad of health benefits, including potential relief from common colds.

A Social and Healthful Practice

  • In Finland, saunas are not just a solitary experience but often a communal one, fostering social bonds and a sense of community.

  • Many Finns believe that regular sauna sessions contribute to their general well-being, which includes fewer incidents of common colds.

Löyly: The Finnish Sauna Ritual

  • Löyly refers to the steam that rises when water is thrown onto hot stones in the sauna. This humid air is thought to open up respiratory passages, offering relief from congestion and sore throats.

Research Findings

  • Some studies in Finland have suggested that people who engage in regular sauna sessions report “half as many colds” as those who don’t. However, these findings should not be interpreted as definitive proof but rather as an area that could benefit from more extensive research.

More Than Just Heat

  • The Finnish sauna tradition also often involves alternating between extreme heat and cold, like jumping into a cold lake or rolling in the snow. This abrupt change in body temperature is believed to invigorate the body and stimulate the immune system, although scientific evidence on this is limited.

Differ Significantly from Other Sauna Types

  • Finnish saunas differ significantly from steam rooms and infrared saunas in their construction, the quality of heat, and the rituals involved, all of which contribute to a unique experience that many believe is beneficial in treating cold symptoms.

While the Finnish sauna tradition is deeply ingrained in the culture and considered by many to offer health benefits, including fewer occurrences of common colds, more research is needed to definitively establish its effectiveness in cold treatment.


Conclusion: Is Sauna Good For a Cold?

The question “Is sauna good for a cold?” is more complex than a simple yes or no answer. While saunas, particularly the steam variety, can offer temporary relief from cold symptoms like nasal congestion and sore throat, they are not a cure-all. 

The rise in body temperature and improved blood flow may stimulate the immune system, but scientific evidence to confirm saunas can effectively treat colds is limited.

Regular sauna sessions are a staple in Finnish culture, and some studies even suggest they may result in experiencing half as many colds. However, the health benefits of sauna use, including its impact on colds, still need more rigorous research for conclusive evidence.

It’s also essential to exercise caution when using a sauna, especially when you’re not feeling well or have pre-existing health conditions. Always consult with a healthcare provider before incorporating saunas into your wellness routine.

Whether you’re a sauna aficionado or a newcomer, the experience can be relaxing and may offer temporary symptom relief, but it should not replace proper medical treatment for the common cold.

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