Saunas play an important role in Finland's history, where they were first used thousands of years ago. In his book "Sweat," Mikkel Aaland traces the use of saunas or sweat baths to Finns' nomadic days around the first millennium. Saunas--wet, dry and infrared--are considered safe when use in moderation, but the risks presented by misuse or preexisting health conditions could make a dangerous destination.
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In Edward Press' article for the American Journal of Public Health, he observed that the temperature inside of a sauna can raise the temperature of the body to a dangerous level. His paper saw Finnish sauna temperatures typically range between 176 and 194 degrees Fahrenheit. In one study cited in his paper, women in a 178-degree Finnish sauna reported discomfort related to overheating, including dizziness, arrhythmia, and stomach pain, before the body temperature reached reached the 102.02 degrees--considered the fail-safe level by the study. Underwriters Laboratories, the internationally-recognized authority on product safety, warns users not to exceed 30 minutes in one sitting.
Under the Influence
Using drugs or alcohol often decreases an individual's judgment. The National Institute on Drug Abuse reports that stimulants like cocaine constrict blood vessels, causing the heart beat faster and blood pressure to increase, which could be potentially fatal on its own. Cocaine users who enter saunas exacerbate the risk by introducing the body to an environment which heats the body and has its own impact on the heart.
Alcohol presents its own problems. A 2001 paper by Drs. M.L. Hannuksela and S. Ellahham published in the American Journal of Medicine on the benefits and risks of saunas shows that drinking in the sauna increases the likelihood of hyoptension, arrhythmia and death. In addition, there is no scientific proof that a person can "sweat out" his or her hangover in a sauna.
The American Heart Association reports that heat from saunas cause blood vessels to dilate, allowing blood to move with less effort. For those with hypotension or a condition where mild to moderate exercise is recommended, sauna use may be effective. However, those who have recently had a heart attack, unstable angina conditions or severe aortic stenosis should avoid saunas. Drs. Hannuksela and Ellahham found that those conditions are contraindicative to sauna use.