Steam rooms are enclosed spaces that are heated with steam. The temperatures vary, but steam rooms are typically kept somewhere around 110°F. You’ve probably seen steam rooms before at your gym or inside a spa.
Steam room vs. sauna
Steam rooms are similar to saunas. You sit in a small heated room, and both are said to benefit your health. The big difference is in the type of heat that they provide.
A sauna uses dry heat, usually from hot rocks or a closed stove. Steam rooms are heated by steam from a generator filled with boiling water.
While a sauna may help you relax and loosen your muscles, a steam room may have even further health benefits. The key to the steam room’s unique health benefits is the humidity.
Steam rooms are wet and tropical-like. They are usually lined with tile, glass, or plastic to make them airtight to hold in the moisture. They are heated to between 114 and 120 degrees and designed to maintain humidity from 95% to 100%.
When you enter a steam room, you’ll probably notice droplets right away on your skin because of the high humidity. The air may even feel thick.
In contrast, saunas are dry and desert-like. They are typically made of wood and heated to between 160 and 200 degrees, with humidity levels near zero.
Do steam rooms have health benefits?
Heat bathing is an ancient practice practiced throughout history across many cultures, continuing today in the Russian banyas, American Indian sweat lodges, and Finnish saunas.
As heat therapy soars in popularity today, many health claims are made about its benefits. These range from better metabolism, weight loss, and stress reduction to improved cardiovascular function, pain reduction, anti-aging, and skin rejuvenation.
Medical evidence to support these claims is sometimes incomplete and short of scientific proof, heat therapy researcher Joy Hussain points out in her 2018 study. Still, the study attributes sauna bathing to beneficial effects on the circulatory, cardiovascular, and immune system functions.
While there are many studies on the health benefits of saunas, research on the benefits of moist heat, like steam rooms, is much more limited. But what research there is does highlight a number of health benefits to steam heat.
Read on to see why periods of heat immersion, as in steam rooms and saunas, can be valuable to your health. The focus is on steam rooms, but saunas are included too when research suggests a connection.
Do steam rooms help reduce inflammation?
One thing that researchers generally agree on is that thermal therapy can help reduce systemic inflammation.
This is a big benefit. Research shows that chronic inflammatory diseases are the most significant cause of death in the world.
If inflammation can be reduced, so can the incidence of disease for millions of people. A recent research update by the Rand Corporation showed that about 60% of Americans had at least one chronic condition, and 42% had more than one. Twelve percent of adults in the United States are living with 5 or more chronic conditions.
Worldwide, 3 out of every 5 people die of chronic inflammatory conditions. Inflammation has been linked to many chronic conditions, including:
- respiratory disease
- heart disorders
One study found that frequent sauna bathing helped reduce the amount of C-reactive protein (CRP) in the body. C-reactive protein is a leading blood marker of systemic inflammation.
Researchers noted that further studies are needed to investigate the exact relationship between sauna bathing and systemic inflammation. Though sauna heating, not steam heating, was the focus of the study, steam might have a similar benefit since it also makes use of heat therapy.
Another study suggested that reduced inflammation may be one of the reasons that frequent sauna bathing is associated with decreased risk of both short-term and long-term disease conditions. The study called for further research and cautioned that long-term effects of saunas are still unknown.
Another study suggested that practices that temporarily elevate body temperature and thereby reduce inflammation may be particularly useful for individuals whose physical or cognitive limitations prevent them from engaging in regular exercise.
A study of more than 2,000 men living in Finland found that CRP levels were lower among those who used the sauna more frequently. This is an example of dose-related health benefits of heat therapy in which more, within safe limits, is often better than less.
Other health benefits
There has been much discussion in medical circles about increasing not only lifespan, but healthspan. This is the number of years you live in reasonably good health without serious acute or chronic illness.
One study concluded that regular sauna bathing has the potential to delay the effects of aging and extend healthspan via heat therapy’s benefits to cardiovascular and cognitive health, physical fitness, and muscle maintenance.
Emerging evidence shows that health benefits of saunas are often dose-related, especially for inflammation and cardiovascular benefits. This means that regular repeated sauna use has more benefit than infrequent use.
One research review suggested that the explanation for heat’s dose-related benefits may be that repeated sauna use could help the body acclimate to heat and enhance its response.
Here are some of research’s most commonly mentioned health benefits of heat therapy. The focus here is on steam rooms, but saunas are also included when benefits overlap between the two forms of heat.
A small older studyTrusted Source of seniors in 2012 showed that moist heat improved circulation, especially in the lower legs. The moist heat was applied by a heat pack up to 1 cm below the skin, rather than by a steam room.
Improved circulation can lead to lowered blood pressure and a healthier heart. It can also promote skin tissue healing, which is a common complication for older people.
Clearing congestion is perhaps the benefit most people associate with steam rooms. Anecdotal claims often credit steam with benefitting:
- stuffy nose
- throat irritation
Steam rooms create an environment that warms the mucous membrane and encourages deep breathing. As a result, using one can help break up congestion inside your sinuses and lungs, at least temporarily.
However, results of research about the actual clinical effects of steam inhalation are mixed.
On the positive side, one study found that of hot humid air could help clear mucus, which could be enhanced by inhaling of steam. Another study found that inhalation of essential oils, especially peppermint, in steam vapor may help clear sinus and lung congestion.
Also, this study found that steam inhalation, especially when supplemented with yoga postures, can help improve chronic sinusitis by promoting drainage from the sinuses.
One the other hand, results were not conclusive in one research review of six clinical trials that looked at the effectiveness of steam therapy in adults with the common cold. While participants in some of the studies had reduced symptoms, others didn’t. Some even experienced nose discomfort from inhaling steam.
A clinical trial exploring the effectiveness of steam inhalation in people with chronic sinus symptoms found significant improvement only for headache, not for the majority of other sinus symptoms.
Overall, steam therapy may be effective for temporary relief of congestion symptoms, but it has not been scientifically proved to be an effective treatment.
Promotes cardiovascular health
Older research shows that in a steam room some people’s bodies release hormones that change their heart rate. One of these hormones, called aldosterone, regulates your blood pressure.
When aldosterone is released from sitting in the steam room, it can help lower high blood pressure. This is part of the reason that the steam room makes you feel relaxed.
A 2021 study found that steam baths can potentially improve heart function by reducing blood pressure in healthy people. They noted reductions in heart rate and both systolic and diastolic blood pressure in healthy subjects taking a 10–15 minute steam bath once a week for 12 weeks.
Another study echoed these findings, noting that regular sauna use generally decreases systolic and diastolic blood pressure to improve cardiovascular health.
Everyone knows how sitting in a steamy bath or steam room can help you relax. Researchers are not so sure why. Some of the theories are that the heat of a steam room helps the body produce endorphins, the so-called feel-good hormones that help reduce stress and anxiety.
Another explanation is that a steam room session helps the body decrease its level of cortisol, the hormone produced in response to stress. When cortisol levels drop, people feel more relaxed and rejuvenated.
One research reviewTrusted Source suggested that people who are in high stress occupations (HSOs) (like first responders or military) might reduce stress levels with sauna bathing. The study involved only saunas, but benefits may extend to steam rooms since the main focus was on heat stress.
The researchers found that one to two saunas a week could result in short-lasting improvements in blood pressure and arterial stiffness. Using saunas more often and over a longer period of time led to greater stress tolerance and increased health.
The study cautioned that there was not yet a clear link between heat stress and beneficial cellular mechanisms. They did see the potential of sauna bathing to lesson metabolic risk factors for those in HSOs.
They said future research is needed to examine the effects of both short-term and long-term sauna use on bodily responses and performance.
Promotes mental wellness
Heat-based treatments, including steam rooms, may support mental wellness by directing attention toward relaxation and away from anxiety-producing news and “doomscrolling.”
One study suggested that engaging in heat treatment activities helps to create a state of mindfulness and a focus on the breath, both of which have many psychological benefits. These may include sleep improvement, stress reduction, and mood boosts from focusing on doing something positive for yourself.
Sauna bathing was associated with lowered risks of dementia and Alzheimer’s disease in one involving Finnish men. The researchers called for further studies to identify the specific bodily processes that might connect sauna bathing and memory diseases.
May help fight Covid-19
While no one would suggest you go into a steam room if you have COVID-19, it is interesting to note that research is exploring the potential of applying mild heat-stress from saunas, steam rooms, hot springs, and mud application to act as a fever does to trigger immune defenses against viruses, including COVID-19.
The researchers point out that no clinical protocols exist yet for using heat to treat COVID-19. But heat does have has a long history of being used to treat illness. The researchers suggested that protocols be established for use now and during any future pandemics.
The study concluded that heat has potential for treatment and prevention of COVID-19. Although its effectiveness has yet to be established, heat treatments are widely available and relatively inexpensive. Also, they have wide-ranging mental and physical effects in the body.
All this combines to make varied heat treatments a potential option for use against viral infections.
Promotes skin health
Through environmental exposure, all sorts of toxins can become trapped underneath your skin. Steam rooms help solve that problem by using heat to open up your pores.
The warm condensation rinses away the dirt and dead skin that can lead to breakouts. As a result, you may have clearer and more even-toned skin.
Helps support workout recovery
The pain you feel after working out is called delayed onset muscles soreness (DOMS). Professional athletes have known for decades that heat therapy can help them recover from training workouts.
Heat can penetrate deep into muscle tissue and help relieve DOMS. An older 2013 study showed that moist heat works as effectively and also more quickly than dry heat in muscle recovery.
Loosens stiff joints
Warming up before a workout is critical in avoiding injury. Using a steam room as part of your warm-up could help you reach maximum mobility during activities such as:
One older 2013 study investigated the effects of heat on the flexibility of soft tissue. Heat was applied to the knee joint before activity, and as a result, the joint was far more flexible and relaxed. The results showed that heat can help reduce injury before a workout.
Research has shown that heat is especially useful for limbering up stiff joints and relieving achy muscles for people with arthritis, according to the Arthritis Foundation.
Here’s why. Warming up a sore joint or tired muscle makes blood vessels bigger, which lets more blood, oxygen, and nutrients to travel to the injured tissue. This promotes relaxation of the stiff muscles and joints.
When you’re in the steam room or sauna, your heart rate increases. If you use a steam room after an aerobic workout, your heart rate is already elevated, and the steam room can prolong that elevation.
Sweating it out in the steam room isn’t a tool to lose weight quickly. Any weight you lose in the steam room is water weight, and you’ll need to replace it by drinking water to avoid dehydration.
But using steam rooms regularly as a way to burn more calories at the gym could help your diet and exercise routine be more effective.
Limits and risks of steam room use
Steam rooms do have many potential health benefits, but steam immersion can be harmful if you overdo it, especially if you’re a newbie. Staying in a steam room for more than 15 minutes can dehydrate you. Experts recommend drinking water while you’re there, and directly afterwards.
Steam rooms can also host other people’s germs. The steam isn’t hot enough to kill some types of bacteria, and the warmth may even increase the number of bacteria.
Steam rooms alone can’t treat serious conditions. And while they can raise your heart rate and make your exercise more effective, steam rooms are not a substitute for exercise.
Avoid the steam room and sauna until you get the all-clear from your medical professional if any of these conditions apply to you:
- recovering from surgery
Other potential risks of a steam room, especially with a long exposure, include:
- dizziness and fainting
- heat exhaustion
- heat stroke
If you have a fever
Medical professionals warn against going into a steam room if you have a fever, especially a high one. The increased heat from the steam could elevate your body temperature to dangerous levels and result in breathing difficulty or even heat stroke.
If you are sick
Also, medical professionals warn not to go into a steam room if you are sick. The heat may encourage further growth of bacteria and viruses. Also, you run the risk of transmitting your illness to others.
Do steam rooms increase the risk of COVID-19 transmission?
A research review found no increased transmission risk for COVID-19 in steam rooms, showers, or hot tubs that have high humidity, generally greater than 80%.
In fact, the research suggested just the opposite. The high humidity decreased both the amount of airborne material and the survival rate of the virus in airborne particles and on surfaces.
Researchers cautioned that the results did not eliminate the need to maintain physical distancing, as well as regular and thorough cleaning and disinfecting routines.
Many health benefits have been attributed to heat therapy. The ones best supported by research are reducing inflammation and clearing sinus and bronchial congestion. Also, adding a stop in the steam room to your post-workout routine may decrease your recovery time and help you feel better.
While steam rooms should never replace treatments that your doctor has prescribed, they are a great place to unwind and reap some health benefits while you’re at it.
Always practice good steam room hygiene by wearing flip-flops, sitting on a towel, and rinsing off with a lukewarm shower to get rid of bacteria after time in a steam room.