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Is it Safe to Use Steam Therapy When Pregnant?

by
author image Kim Joyce
Kim Joyce has been a journalist for more than 20 years, specializing in healthy foods and environmental health. She also served as communications director for the Faculty Association of California Community Colleges and production editor for Scholars Press. Joyce holds a B.A. in environmental studies and analysis, as well as an M.F.A. in creative writing from California State University, Chico.
Is it Safe to Use Steam Therapy When Pregnant?
Massage is OK during pregnancy, but heat-related treatments are unwise. Photo Credit Steve Mason/Digital Vision/Getty Images

As important as it is to pamper yourself during pregnancy by eating well, getting regular exercise and even taking an occasional trip to the spa, steam heat can be dangerous for your baby. This is a rather “hot” topic in some circles, given the popularity of hot tubs, saunas and steam rooms. But the National Institutes of Health and the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists discourage steam therapy during pregnancy.

Effects of Steam Heat

Exposure to hot steam increases a pregnant woman’s body temperature. To try to cool it down again, vessels near the surface of the skin dilate or expand to dissipate excess body heat by sweating. The heart needs to work harder to pump blood to the skin surface faster, which can quickly cause dehydration and overheating. But the heart is also supplying oxygen to the developing fetus. High heat from a sauna or steam room could place an extreme burden on the mother’s heart and circulation at a time when her heart is already working hard. A pregnant woman with undiagnosed heart disease could quickly be in trouble.

Possible Permanent Damage

A pregnant woman risks her baby’s health as well as her own by taking steam, according to the March of Dimes, which warns against any spa treatments that raise body temperature–from hot tubs, saunas and steam rooms to mud baths and hot wax and seaweed wraps. A 1992 study published in the "Journal of the American Medical Association" suggests that pregnant women exposed to steam heat in hot tubs or saunas during their first trimester of pregnancy–when women may not even be aware they are pregnant–risk serious brain and spinal cord abnormalities, known as neural tube defects, in their babies.

Being Cautious

The American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists advises against the use of saunas during pregnancy with the proviso that if they are used, women keep their steam exposure as short as possible. This is to prevent overheating and raising the core body temperature, which could affect the developing fetus. According to the American Pregnancy Association, a body temperature above 101 or 102 degrees Fahrenheit raises concerns. It takes only 10 to 20 minutes in a hot tub for a pregnant woman's core body temperature to rise that high.

Safe Spa Treatments

Doctors consistently warn pregnant women against getting overheated, whether through hot water or steam exposure, during exercise or from using electrical blankets. Extending that caution to temporary abstention from steam therapy–only during the nine months of pregnancy–seems consistent. But that doesn’t mean pregnant women can’t enjoy other spa services. Full or partial prenatal body massage is safe, usually done when the woman is lying on her side, and offers some relief for the aches and pains of pregnancy. And consider leg massages, to target tired, achy legs. Facials, manicures, pedicures, acupuncture and reflexology are all OK too–even warm baths. Just don’t take hot baths. Any bath that causes facial sweating is too hot.

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