Our grandparents may have been on to something when they said sea air was good for our lungs.
Salt therapy as an alternative health practice to help treat asthma and other respiratory conditions is growing in popularity, with replica “salt caves” opening across Australia.
Without even thinking about it, most of us already engage in wet salt therapy – gargling salt water for sore throats, using nasal saline sprays and rubbing salt scrubs on our skin.
But does halotherapy – the practice of breathing in tiny particles of salt dispersed into the air to help respiratory and skin problems – live up to the hype?
The purported benefits of breathing in salt-infused air
Dry salt therapy, also known as halotherapy, usually involves relaxing in a spa-like “salt room” while breathing in tiny negatively ionised salt particles infused into the air, according to the World Halotherapy Association.
“It’s an all-natural, drug-free solution that clears mucus, kills bacteria and viruses and reduces inflammation throughout the whole respiratory system,” says Kat Kupsch, owner of The Salt Room in Perth.
“Think of all the As – salt has natural antihistamine, antiviral, anti-inflammatory, antibacterial, antimicrobial and anti-fungal properties, which detoxify the body, strengthen the immune system and help relieve symptoms for a range of conditions.
“It’s also great for skin issues such as psoriasis, acne, eczema and dry and flaky skin.”
Where salt therapy began
Salt – a natural disinfectant with preserving and antibacterial properties – has been used in medical practices for hundreds of years, according to a review of halotherapy in Environmental Engineering and Management Journal.
Kat says salt therapy can be traced back as far as Ancient Greece, when Hippocrates recommended visits to salt caves and salt inhalation as an effective treatment for respiratory issues.
“Then in 1843 a Polish doctor Felix Boczowski noticed workers from a salt mine had fewer respiratory problems than other mine workers,” she says.
“His findings led to the first salt therapy clinic near Krakow, a health spa inside the Wieliczka Salt Mine, which still operates today.”
While modern salt rooms are set up to mimic salt caves, modern science has only relatively recently started studying salt therapy’s potential benefits.
What the science says about salt rooms
A 2007 Romanian study found people with chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) had fewer symptoms and improved quality of life after salt therapy.
Another study published in the Journal of Aerosol Medicine, which looked at the effects of salt therapy on patients with various respiratory illnesses, found most participants’ symptoms improved after 10 to 20 one-hour treatments.
In 2017, researchers from Israel found halotherapy seemed to help asthmatic children between the ages of five and 13, although the scientists noted more long-term studies would be useful.
But the jury is still out, with Lung Foundation Australia warning there are concerns the warm, moist environment in salt rooms may provide opportunity for the growth of various risky bacteria.
“In addition, salt can irritate the airways. Respiratory specialists sometimes use inhalation of concentrated saline (salt) solutions as part of a lung function test, to trigger asthma attacks in patients suspected of having asthma,” says chief executive Mark Brooke.
“Without this professional supervision, exposure to salt-enriched air could be potentially dangerous for those with a respiratory condition.”
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