Will Taking a Sauna Make a Cold Sore Worse?

  • Medically reviewed by Emina Ribic (MD) on November 18, 2018. Written by Linda White (MD).

While most everyone enjoys a relaxing sauna session, there are some negative consequences. This is, unfortunately, the case if you have an active cold sore, or if you already have HSV-1 in your system.

If you’ve had cold sores in the past, it’s ‘likely’ that you’ll get them again. The sauna could cause an outbreak, make them worse or lead to fever blisters forming on other areas of the face.

Most people find that hot temperatures are bad for cold sores. The addition of artificial dry heat and excessive sweating can make the situation worse. Viruses thrive in this setting. Dry skin can cause the area around the mouth or lips to become cracked and vulnerable to HSV-1.

Taking a sauna can trigger the formation of blisters. It can also spread the herpes virus to other parts of the body. Another negative factor is that saunas are ‘usually’ shared with members of the public, and they are certain to introduce viruses of your own.

We will explain how a sauna can worsen cold sores and cause the virus to spread. We’ll also look at some sensible steps that you can take to protect yourself from the herpes simplex virus.

Will a Sauna Trigger Cold Sores?

Spending time in a sauna can serve as a cold sore trigger due to the intense heat and moisture. Essentially acting as a sweatbox, a sauna can activate HSV-1 while also intensifying existing sores.

While harsh temperatures from sunshine are known cold sore triggers, artificial heat can be almost as bad.[1] This is especially the case when you enter a sauna from a standard 72-degree room temperature atmosphere.

Although a sauna session can cause a cold sore, harm can also be done upon leaving the steam room. Because you will once again be met with a stark temperature change, your lips and mouth will begin to dry out. This dryness can lead to chapping and cracking of the lips. This sequence alone can trigger HSV-1 and increase symptoms of existing sores.

Another factor in play is the human condition. The temperatures created within a sauna can wear down the body. When a general state of fatigue is met with intense artificial heat and moisture, the body is in no position to fight back.[2] Dehydration can set in, and HSV-1 can become active.

To summarize:

  • Spending time in a sauna, while potentially enjoyable and relaxing, can trigger HSV-1. The artificial heat and steam produced can also make existing blisters worse.
  • Harsh temperature changes are known triggers. Transitioning from room temperature, to triple digits, and then back to room temperature can pose a problem. While a sauna will moisten your lips with sweat, dehydration will occur once you leave. This can lead to chapped lips. If you reside in a cold weather climate, you could conceivably encounter a 70+ degree temperature swing in a very short time.
  • Time spent in a sauna can fatigue the body. Designed to produce sweat, this form of relaxation can zap your energy. This type of environment is not positive regarding fending off a fever blister. Cold sores thrive when you are weakened.

Can a Sauna Spread the Herpes Simplex Virus? 

Extreme heat and moisture, especially when confined to a small area, can spread germs and bacteria. The herpes simplex virus is no exception. This is why a sauna can be problematic regarding the growth process of cold sores.

While a sauna is a troublesome environment for HSV-1, a majority of that concern is due to its public setting. The potential host of individuals who’ve occupied the sauna before you is a problem. How many of those people had an illness? How many used the room appropriately? If a sauna is not sanitized thoroughly, you are essentially entering a “germ box” for lack of better phrasing.

It is possible to transfer your virus to other areas of your body accidentally. Because a sauna results in intense sweating it is easy to transfer your sweat. This can mean transferring HSV-1 contaminated sweat to your nose, cheeks, eyes, fingers, etc.[3]

While the basic notion of contaminating your environment with HSV-1 is not likely in other settings, a steam room is an exception. Being trapped inside a public phone booth on a hot day is a worthy comparison.

To recap:

  • The environment of a sauna can pose a real threat regarding spreading HSV-1. The extreme heat and moisture, especially in such a small area, can serve to spread germs and bacteria.
  • If you have active HSV-1, it is possible to spread your virus through touch. Rubbing your infected lip and then rubbing your eyes, for example, can be quite troublesome in this setting.
  • Being mindful of prior guests is important. If the sauna is open to the general public, the room likely has a history. This history is potentially not a pleasant one. Many people will have used the sauna before you on a given day. It is also possible the environment has not been sterilized.

When Should I Avoid Taking a Sauna? 

If you currently have a cold sore or simply carry HSV-1, you should be mindful of your personal triggers.

Sauna sessions can be relaxing, but also demanding on the body. Triple-digit temperatures are intense. They are made even more intense if you are already fatigued. If you have a common cold, for example, you should avoid a sauna. The combination of fatigue and intense heat will only serve to cause a cold sore outbreak.

Additionally, you are encouraged to avoid a sauna if you have been consuming alcohol. While stiff beverages are natural triggers, intense heat after consumption can act as a double whammy.

Finally, it is also important to recognize visual cues. If you carry HSV-1 and spot someone in the sauna with a cold sore, you should probably avoid the room. For the reasons documented, a sauna can be relaxing, but it can also be a haven for viruses, germs, and bacteria.

To summarize:

  • Never entertain the notion of a sauna session if you are already under the weather. It is not wise to deplete your immune system further.
  • Although alcohol is a known trigger, drinks and intense heat can serve as a double trigger.
  • If you witness someone in the sauna who is ill or has a visual cold sore, then you should leave. Better yet, not enter at all if you can avoid it. Never deliberately subject yourself to a rough environment on purpose. You could come away with a cold sore, the flu, and perhaps worse.
  • Tip: Never assume people have the same hygiene and public respect practices that you do. It is better to be safe than sorry.

Will a sauna trigger cold sores?

How Can You Prevent a Cold Sore from Getting Worse? 

Being wise to your symptoms is often the best form of prevention. The sooner you notice a problem, the sooner it can be resolved.

Regarding active medication aid, OTC treatment methods are our recommendation. While the brand and type are up to you, just know that OTC selections are traditionally safe and effective. Many are FDA approved. Sticking with what works will heal your cold sore faster. This is especially true when the alternative treatments are sometimes unsuccessful and potentially dangerous.

Listed below are three of our most notable recommendations:

  • Abreva (FDA approved cream)
  • HERP-B-GONE (Made from essential oils and natural ingredients)
  • Virulite (FDA approved light technology cold sore device)

What Precautions Should I take When Using a Dry Sauna?

The best precautions to take upon entering a sauna typically involves your hand placement. The decision not to touch your face or rub your sweat can go a long way. This will help regarding spreading an active sore or triggering an outbreak.

While the environment will still be problematic, simply due to the artificial heating element involved, you can still be proactive. Sitting on a clean towel instead of sitting on the bench is another precaution you can take. In fact, standing up can eliminate this potential problem.

Limiting your time in the sauna can also work in your favor. Your body will tell you when you have had enough. As it relates to germs and bacteria, the idea of exiting early is a wise move. This is especially true if you are dealing with an active blister.

  • Pro Tip: While a cold sore patch can help to prevent cold sores from spreading, it will likely become unstuck in a hot and humid environment. If you wear one after your sauna has been completed, make sure that the surface area is completely dry.

To recap:

  • Keep your hands away from known sources of germs and bacteria. Do not touch the bench area, do not touch the walls, and do not touch your face. Interacting with your sweat can cause an active sore to spread.
  • If you decide to sit down in the sauna, it is wise to use your own fresh towel. However, for increased precautionary reasons, standing could be your safest bet. Either option is better than sitting on a bacteria-ridden bench.
  • Limiting your time in the sauna is important. While this is a wise practice regardless of your HSV-1 status, it is important if you have an active blister. The less time spent under intense heat, the less time your blister will have to become infected.

Will taking a sauna make your cold sores worse?

The Sauna is Not a Friend to Cold Sore Healing

The harsh truth is that there is no such thing as a sanitary steam room. Public saunas, while harsh to suggest, are not far removed from public toilets. It is not what you do in the sauna but rather what the people before you have done. Furthermore, assuming the sauna has been cleaned before your personal use is likely wishful thinking at best.

One of the most effective ways to prevent and treat cold sores is by making wise decisions. Once you know which environments are problematic, the easier it will be to manage and avoid HSV-1.

References

  1. https://iovs.arvojournals.org/article.aspx?articleid=2126154
  2. Peter N. Uchakin, David C. Parish, Francis C. Dane, et al. Fatigue in Medical Residents Leads to Reactivation of Herpes Virus Latency. Interdisciplinary Perspectives on Infectious Diseases, vol. 2011, Article ID 571340, 7 pages, 2011. https://www.hindawi.com/journals/ipid/2011/571340/
  3. https://www.nejm.org/doi/10.1056/NEJMicm1711479?url_ver=Z39.88-2003&rfr_id=ori:rid:crossref.org&rfr_dat=cr_pub%3dwww.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov

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