*Disclaimer: The written article is based on a summary of existing scientific literature on the topic of infrared saunas. The article is for educational purposes and the information provided below cannot be taken as a promise to help with acute health problems or diseases.
The claims in the article are backed by 15 scientific references. All references are numbered. You can access the text of the reference by clicking on the number.
In this blog post, I answer the unthinkable question of "can you die in a sauna?". I'll first consider how dying in a sauna is possible, then talk about a few cases where an unfortunate death has happened, and lastly talk about how to minimize risk so this never happens to you.
Here we go:
How Do You Die In A Sauna?
Well, the answer to this question is very simple:
You stay in a sauna for a very long time, despite building up more and more discomfort. You also ignore signs of your body telling you that you're overexposing yourself.
Finally, it's too late and the unthinkable happens...
Let's not overcomplicate the subject too much though: you are in control, at least partially, whether you die in a sauna or not. Let's, therefore, look at the biggest risk factor for dying in a sauna out there:
Alcohol, Drinking, And The Risk Of Dying In A Sauna
If you're spending time in the sauna while under the influence of alcohol, you're massively increasing your risk. In fact, in half of all cases of people dying in a sauna, alcohol was involved (1). A related study states (3):
"Alcohol-related minor accidents such as sprains and burns are common in sauna, but more serious accidents also take place--head contusions, heat stroke after passing out in sauna and drownings while swimming."
But how likely is dying in a sauna anyhow? In other words, what's the statistical chance this extremely unfortunate event occurs for you?
That data providing an answer originates from Finland, one of the countries with the most sauna users in existence. For every 100,000 deaths occurring in that country every single year, 2 take place in a sauna. Now, you might think: "so, over time, on a population of millions, quite a few people will die in a sauna?"
The answer is "yes"!
Another estimate is that every year, about 20-25 people die in Finland due to sauna usage (3). But, deaths also occur without the influence of alcohol, from natural causes. Here's how:
Dying Of Natural Causes In A Sauna
My earlier answer needs to be placed in context. Many of the people dying in a sauna also die from natural causes - 50% to be exact (1).
The concept of "dying of natural causes" means that no force from outside the human body causes death to occur (2). So, a stroke, heart attack, heart failure, or heat complications can all be considered "dying from natural causes".
The biggest risk in dying from natural causes occurs when you've already got pre-existing conditions and/or already are in poor health.
For that reason, if you have any health issues, such as heart and blood vessel problems, consult with your physician first before engaging in any strenuous sauna session.
Next, up, let's consider how long it takes to die in a sauna:
How Long Does It Take To Die In A Sauna?
Of course, the only valid answer to this question is "it depends". Your age, your overall heath, your fitness level, whether you've eaten well before a sauna session or not, hydrations status, and other factors will all determine whether you "last long" in a sauna.
And even though it's somewhat crude to speculate about this topic, some sources do exist regarding how long people "last" in a sauna before passing away:
- First of all, from 1999 to 2010, ten different "World Sauna Championships" were held in Finland (4). Later yearly events were all cancelled because in 2010 a Russian man died in a 110 degree Celsius (230F) sauna after just 6 minutes - an extremely high temperature. That Russian person may have ingested painkillers too, moreover, to last longer in the sauna, thereby undermining the feeling that he'd be excessively heated. One other Finnish man also passed out during the same event. Both persons also experienced burns on their body due to the extreme temperature! Lesson? Never ignore extreme discomfort!
- In 2013, a 68-year-old Korean person died while spending time in a Korean sauna that uses extremely high temperatures (5). The man was a sauna operator and spending tons of time in these structures on a daily basis. What time it took him to die in the sauna is unknown, fortunately, as his death should not become a spectacle.
- In 2009, during a sweat lodge ceremony - a traditional Native American style of sauna - two participants died (6). Additionally, 18 other people had to be taken to the hospital due to dehydration, burns, organ failure, and other reasons. All the participants had fasted for 36 hours as well, and 24 hours without water! Also, the sweat lodge was not constructed like a traditional unit should be built according to the native's customs.
- In 2013, a Brazilian mixed martial arts fighter died while trying to lose 33 pounds in a week for an upcoming fight (7). The fighter reached his weight class within 2 pounds before collapsing and later dying in the hospital
In almost all of these cases, the time spent in the sauna before dying is unknown - families of survivors usually have the survival of their loved ones in the back of their minds instead of the time spent in a sauna. I won't provide any more examples, you probably get my point by now.
Moreover, what should these examples tell you? Dying in a sauna is possible, and you should be careful that you eat and drink enough beforehand and never use drugs like alcohol or painkillers to increase the period you can last in a sauna.
With normal use, the risk is almost infinitesimally small to die in a sauna. But, to drive that point further home, let's explore how you can optimize safety in the next section:
How Do People Not Die From A Sauna: Safety First, Safety Second & Safety Last
Let me give you another perspective on this topic. In my blog post, I've concluded that it takes anywhere between 6 minutes up until several hours until a human being dies in a sauna, depending on the temperature, the age of the person, etcetera.
Here's how to reframe the problem:
For an (infrared) sauna to be effective, there's no need to push yourself to your limit! The "no pain, no gain" principle that's often touted in sports is not applicable here!
In fact, staying longer inside a sauna might make your sessions less effective rather than more effective.
Well, several principles apply here but I'll only consider three of them in order not to overcomplicate things too much:
- Hormesis - or the optimal stress response (8; 9; 10). Remember the "no pain, no gain" statement I just made? Well, in biology there's a concept called "hormesis". Hormesis denotes the body's response to stress. For instance, if you stress your body with exercise moderately to intensely, you'll become better at that activity over time - running or lifting weights are examples. But if you stress your body beyond it's ability to recover, your performance actually goes down over time. Saunas are the same, in that getting moderately hot might be even better than leaving the sauna exhausted. That principle is especially true for infrared saunas. Why? Let's move to my next point:
- The "biphasic dose response"of light (11; 12). The exposure of light to your body follows a "biphasic response" curve. Some light is good, more light is better, but at a certain point, the health benefits actually go down. Several types of light, such as near infrared and far infrared light, are actually a kind of nutrient to your body in that they make your cells perform more efficiently. Here's an analogy to understand that principle: adding some vegetables to your diet is almost always good, adding more vegetables is almost always better, but eating 8 pounds of vegetables per day won't necessarily improve your health over and above eating 2 pounds of vegetables.
- High temperatures and the stress response (13; 14; 15). Extremely heavy sweating all across your body doesn't necessarily make your sauna sessions more effective. Why? Simple: the body has several types of sweating. One type of sweating is mainly used to detoxify, and the second type's goal is to cool your body down. At Clearlight Infrared Saunas International® we actually aim to optimize for the second type of sweating by using different types of infrared light.
My point with these 3 principles? More is not always better. If you feel (extreme) discomfort, exit the sauna. Also make sure you drink and eat well around your sauna sessions.
At Clearlight, we emphasise that you don't have to stress your body out to get great benefits from an infrared sauna. Instead, generally, a relaxing sauna session begets the most benefits.
Finishing Thoughts: Reframing The Problem
So, to answer the question I raised at the beginning of this blog post: "can you die in a sauna?" Absolutely! But can you prevent dying also? Once more: absolutely!
Make sure to never enter a sauna if you're not feeling well, or have taken medication that alters your heat tolerance, or are using drugs or alcohol.
Moreover, here's an analogy to understand that principle a little better:
If you're sprained your ankle, it's probably good to only move slowly, without your limits. Pain during and after exercise should not be too high. And what if your ankle has recovered? In that case, some exercise is good but more is not better. If you train your lower legs for 3 hours a day, you'll probably end up with an injury again, and you're not becoming more athletic because you're overtraining.
The same is true for sauna use: 2 hours of exposure is not better than 30 minutes, in most cases. After a certain point, the health benefits you get go down. It's therefore best to focus on feeling good and relaxing rather than staying in as long as you can.