How safe is your local sauna?

A sauna should typically be heated to between 40° to 45° Celsius.      PHOTO/FILE

What you need to know:

  • Experts say most saunas in Uganda’s suburbs are not built or ran according to recommended standards.

I visited the sauna for the first time during the 2020 lockdown. Before Covid-19, I did not see the point of heating my body just so I could sweat. To me, there were better way of sweating. I partly went as a coping mechanism for being so redundant and partly because rumor had it that steaming oneself in essential oils would avert the Covid-19 infection. And it was one bad experience. 

Of the many things that caught my attention that day, people scrubbing their bodies in the sauna was top of the list. Some people take advantage of the steam’s effect on the skin to give themselves a full body scrub, with no regard for other users. Scrubbing steamed skin makes so much sense but doing it in a shared space was off-putting. 
One man I witnessed several times at one location would enter the sauna with soap and kyangwe (bathing sponge). After scrubbing his skin, he would go ahead to have a full body bath while seated on a tiled bench that someone else will use afterwards. 

Right temperature?
According to standards, a sauna should typically be heated to between 40° to 45° Celsius. It is safe to say that the vast number of neighbourhood saunas probably do not even have the capacity to ensure the heat does not exceed the recommended temperature. Experts say exposure to a sauna that is too hot can result in dehydration, dangerously lowering your blood pressure, even causing sudden death in some people.

Dr Ntege Ssengendo, a sports doctor, says most saunas in Uganda’s suburbs are not built or ran according to standards. The construction is not to standard, the heat is not regulated properly and many are not clean enough. 
“The problem with most local saunas is that they use firewood for heat in the absence of a thermometer. This can be a problem if the heat becomes too much. Electrically heated saunas can regulate themselves using a thermostat but wood saunas must be regulated manually. The problems is that most of them do not even have a thermometer, so the people inside have no way of knowing how hot it should be. Too much heat can cause problems ranging from dehydration to skin blisters,” Dr Ntege says, adding that some of the local saunas are constructed so poorly that the furnace heating the sauna may cause carbon monoxide poisoning to the users if the wall between the furnace and the heat room is breached,” he adds.

Dr Ntege adds that spending too much time in the sauna can be harmful to your health. He, therefore, advises one to avoid exceeding 20 minutes in the sauna without cooling off outside. Longer periods in the heat may result in lowering blood pressure dangerously.
Dr Ntege adds that there is a risk of contracting skin diseases from the sauna due to the fact that users are exposed to each other’s sweat. If possible, he says, stand up and avoid touching any surfaces. 

Infertility in men
Dr Fisha Muhumuza, a sports and orthopedic doctor, warns that constant use of saunas may be detrimental to male fertility because the testicles are sensitive to heat. He warns that exposing them to the sauna, especially saunas that do not maintain a temperature between 40 and 45 degrees Celsius, may result in infertility. 
“While sauna use comes with many benefits such as detoxification, pain reduction, weight loss, increased blood circulation, increased metabolism, skin rejuvenation, improved sleep, stress management and improved cardiovascular function, among others, overuse can be detrimental to men who are still hoping to have children,” he says. 

Urinary Tract Infections (UTIs)

Dr Muhumuza says because the sauna causes the whole body to be dump, several bodily fluids are bound to flow onto the surfaces where the users sit. He says some of those fluids might happen be sexual in nature and if a person sits where someone with a UTI has been, that person may contract the infection.
“The nature of the sauna is that everyone is dripping wet and sitting where a sick person has been sitting may result in contracting a UTI. You must ensure that your local sauna is keen on cleanliness and demand it,” he says. 

Respiratory diseases
Some people head to the sauna when they fill like they are coming down with something. This, the doctor says, can result in infecting other users. 
Other than things such as colds, flu and cough, more dangerous diseases can be contracted from the sauna because of how enclosed and crowded they are. Dr Muhumuza says in worst case scenarios, one might contract TB or Pneumonia. But he is quick to add that the risk is higher when it comes to diseases caused by poor hygiene. 

Dehydration risk
Staying too long in the sauna may cause dehydration as a result of losing to much body fluids through sweat, according to Dr Muhumuza. He advises people with certain conditions such as kidney disease to be wary of the sauna as they are more prone to extreme dehydration.
“Over dehydration may cause dizziness, collapsing, nausea or even headaches. Making sure to not stay too long in the heat is a good start,” he advises. 

Exposure to sauna can raise the skin temperature to about 40° Celsius. Because of the increased skin temperature, heavy sweating happens and the heart rate go up. The heart rate goes up because the body is working hard to cool down. Experts believe that a 20 minute session in the sauna can make you lose about half a litre of sweat, which helps to detoxify the body. 

Some of the benefits if sauna include easing pain, reducing stress and improving cardiovascular health. Due to the high heat provided by the sauna, the body produces endorphins, which are hormones that minimise stress and physical pain. The high temperatures also cause blood vessels to dilate, which results in increased blood circulation, which in turn, experts say, could speed up the body's natural healing process.

No alcohol: One of the more important precautions while using the sauna is to avoid taking alcohol before or during sauna, according to experts. The reason behind this is that both alcohol and sauna promote dehydration and combining both may be deadly. Some sources assert that taking alcohol while using the sauna not only causes dehydration but may result in hypotension, arrhythmia, or even sudden death.

Limit time spent in a sauna: Do not spend more than 20 minutes at a time in a sauna. First-time users should spend a maximum of five to 10 minutes. As they get used to the heat, they can slowly increase the time to about 20 minutes.

Drink plenty of water: Because sauna promotes dehydration, drinking lots of water is recommended. This helps replenish the fluids one loses through sweating. 

Avoid sauna use if ill: Dr Fisha Muhumuza says while a number of sauna users rush to the sauna when they feel ill, it is not recommended. 

“Not only do you put other people at risk, bacteria thrives in warm temperatures. One must also first consult a doctor using the sauna,” he says. 

Avoid eating before sauna
Experts say that entering a sauna after a heavy meal may cause nausea. They advise that heavy meals (especially high fat foods) and drinks should be avoided.