At the very same time that we’re being inundated with advice on restricting salt intake, we’re also hearing about a new type of therapy based on the claim that spending time in a salt room, breathing in moist, salty air, can help ease chronic respiratory problems such as asthma while also clearing up skin issues such as acne or psoriasis. Based on a centuries-old Eastern European curative therapy, spalike salt rooms are beginning to appear around the country. Are the benefits for real?

The Salt Room Experience

The quasi-medical term for this treatment is “halotherapy.” It involves sitting in a smallish room lined with blocks of salt mined from ancient salt caves. A generator (like a steam vaporizer) emits vapor containing about one-half cup of salt during a 45-minute session. People remain clothed for the treatment but often bring a clothing change for afterward since the salt tends to leave a residue.

It sounds like “a day at the beach” — but does halotherapy help your health in any meaningful way? To find out, I called asthma and allergy specialist Leonard Bielory, MD, chair of the American College of Allergy, Asthma & Immunology (ACAAI) Integrative Medicine Committee and director, STARx Allergy and Asthma Center in Springfield, New Jersey.

Nice But…

Dr. Bielory calls salt rooms a “nice concept” but voices some concerns. He agrees that the salt particles may help skin conditions such as acne or eczema but he worries that salt therapy may prove detrimental to some people with asthma. He pointed out that asthma is the result of constriction in the respiratory tract, which can be caused by excess mucus or by spasms. Breathing salt-infused air might help break up mucus and therefore help some folks to breathe better, but others may find that the salt is an irritant that triggers spasms.

Dr. Bielory’s objections don’t stop there. There’s no way to guarantee the purity of the air in the rooms, he said — pointing out that, theoretically at least, salt attracts certain bacteria and that each person coming for treatment brings a fresh supply of additional bacteria that might evolve in the environment. Other worries relate to the length of time and at what temperature it is safe to stay in the rooms, and whether salt rooms may be dangerous for people with other health conditions, such as cardiac problems.

Offering a different perspective, Daily Health News contributing medical editor Andrew L. Rubman, ND, was less dismissive. While agreeing with some of Dr. Bielory’s concerns, he pointed out that this therapy has hundreds of years of successful use in Europe behind it, and he knows naturopathic physicians who treat patients with inhaled salt therapy for such things as chronic bronchitis, asthma and chronic fatigue syndrome. “There is potential benefit for some patients under the supervision of a skilled doctor with experience,” he said. Dr. Rubman agrees with Dr. Bielory that medical oversight is imperative because there is potential for harm.

Is it worth a try? Maybe, but don’t be casual about it. If you are interested in exploring the use of halotherapy for a particular medical concern, make sure you find a doctor “worth his salt” … in other words, one who knows the way around this particular block.