If you suffer from eczema, you'll try just about anything to ease the discomfort of this itchy, painful skin ailment. Steam rooms and saunas present an interesting conundrum on whether the extreme heat and humidity will alleviate symptoms or worsen them. Opinions and experience differ, so you may have to try a sauna to see if it will work for you. Before you do, however, there are a few things you should know about eczema and steam.
Types of Eczema
Britain's National Eczema Society lists several types of eczema, which can be divided into two major families. Hereditary and genetic forms occur naturally in certain people, particularly in children. Hereditary eczema is not always present, but can be triggered by certain chemicals, allergies, heat and rough clothing. These same triggers bring on contact dermatitis and other non-hereditary forms of eczema. These usually affect people with skin allergies and people over 60 with dry skin.
Eczema and Moisture
Moisture is a common treatment for eczema of all types. The American Osteopathic College of Dermatology (AOCD) describes it, eczema is specifically caused by the skin's inability to retain moisture; this causes inflammation that results in itching. The Mayo Clinic recommends treating affected skin with wet dressings, which soothe inflammation and soften skin. However, a primary purpose of wet dressings is to cool the skin, which calms the nerves. Hot water, the AOCD points out, can dry skin further.
Eczema and Heat
Heat normally irritates eczema, and must be used carefully. Sweating can worsen itchiness and raise the risk of infection. It's necessary to keep affected skin clean, which means applying warm water. In general, the National Institutes of Health recommends taking short, lukewarm baths instead of long, hot ones. Hot saunas can cause both heat irritation and sweating; by this logic, they are not a wise choice.
Eczema and Saunas
Despite the evidence that hot water and saunas can worsen eczema, some claim that this treatment actually improves the skin condition. Lifelong eczema sufferer Paul Hazelden writes that Finnish saunas were the only therapy that left his skin clean and calm. He theorizes that abrupt switching from hot to cold, a common practice in Finland, actually soothed his nerves. However, this is not a common claim.
It's most likely that a hot steam sauna will worsen your eczema rather than improve it. However, you may be able to benefit from the moisturizing effects of steam through careful application of moisturizers. The National Institutes of Health recommend applying petroleum jelly, creams or lotions after exposure to moisture; this helps your skin retain water. If you want to try a steam sauna, limit your exposure to a few minutes, then immediately use a moisturizer that's free of any fragrance or dye. If possible, cool your skin immediately afterward to reduce inflammation.