What is a sauna?

A sauna is a room or building equipped with temperature and humidity controls, first introduced in Finland more than 2,000 years ago. This long-standing tradition is used for relaxation and other health benefits and its popularity has spread throughout the world.

How does a sauna affect the body?

While there are different types of saunas, a Finnish sauna is the most popular and most researched. This type of sauna uses dry heat, with temperatures reaching between 158- and 212-degrees Fahrenheit, and relative humidity between 10 and 20 percent. 

This heated environment raises skin temperature, causing the body to sweat. As a result, the heart beats faster to cool off the body, similar to what happens during exercise. 

Is a sauna good for the body?

An abundance of research suggests that using a sauna is generally safe and potentially good for the body. 

Can individuals with a heart condition use a sauna, and is it dangerous?

While the use of a sauna is considered safe for most individuals, the exception is for those with unstable heart disease. For individuals with any of the following conditions, it may not be safe:

  • unstable angina pectoris
  • recent heart attack (within two weeks)
  • uncontrolled hypertension
  • decompensated heart failure
  • severe aortic stenosis 

In addition to unstable heart disease, a sauna can be a health threat to individuals with the following conditions:

  • low blood pressure
  • dehydration
  • fever
  • acute infection or inflammation 
  • skin breakdown (urticaria) 

If you have any of these conditions, talk to your doctor about the use of a sauna as the heat and/or excess sweating may worsen the underlying condition.

Using a sauna after a heart attack

For individuals who have experienced a heart attack, it is generally considered safe to use a sauna after two weeks as long as their condition is stable, and symptoms are controlled. Of course, it’s always a good idea to talk to your cardiologist if you have questions.

Are there benefits to using a sauna for individuals with heart disease?

The body’s response to a sauna mimics that of exercise – an increase in heart rate followed by a drop in blood pressure. The current evidence suggests that a sauna is safe and likely beneficial for most individuals with heart disease except when there is an unstable condition as described above. However, more controlled studies are needed to investigate sauna as an intervention. 

Safety precautions for using a sauna

If you have heart disease and are using a sauna, please take these safety precautions.

  • Do not exceed 212 degrees Fahrenheit or 20 percent humidity.
  • Limit your time in the sauna to no more than 20 minutes.
  • Be sure to allow for a cooling off period after the sauna, but do not immerse yourself in ice water or a cold pool if you have heart disease. This sudden stress can cause arrhythmia or other blood pressure or heart rate instability. 
  • Be sure to stay hydrated.
  • Do not use alcohol before or immediately after using a sauna.

In general, it is safe for most patients with heart disease to enjoy a sauna as long as their condition is stable, and they follow recommended precautions. If you have any questions about what is safe for your heart, talk with your cardiologist.

Wen-Chih "Hank" Wu, MD

Dr. Wen-Chih Wu, MPH, is director of the Lifespan Cardiovascular Wellness and Prevention Center at the Lifespan Cardiovascular institute and specializes in the prevention of cardiovascular diseases and diabetes.