In our second post in our “AAFA Explains” series, we look at claims that salt treatment (also known as halotherapy) can improve your asthma.
This blog series looks at complementary and alternative medicine (CAM) aimed at asthma and allergies. The Asthma and Allergy Foundation of America wants to guide you as you decide between choices that may be “likely safe” or “potentially unsafe.”
CAM treatments usually do not go through the same rigorous scientific research as new drugs and medical procedures. As a result, whether or not CAM works (called efficacy) is unproven for most treatments.
Salt therapy – such as salt rooms, caves or lamps - falls into that category.
What is salt therapy?
“Salt rooms” are popping up in the U.S., Australia, the U.K. and elsewhere. These rooms charge you a fee to enter, like a spa. Salt crystals coat the rooms and the air is salt-laden as an attempt to mimic naturally occurring salt caves.
The history of natural salt caves as an asthma remedy is ancient. In Russia and Eastern Europe, people with asthma would descend into salt caves. The belief is that breathing in extremely small salt crystals would help open up the airways and assist with the buildup of mucus.
What does science tell us about salt therapy?
Studies evaluating salt therapy for asthma are few.
One of the largest studies to examine the use of salt caves evaluated the therapy for COPD (chronic obstructive pulmonary disease). COPD is a chronic disease of the lungs caused by smoking.
Researchers reviewed 151 articles about salt therapy. They checked for high-quality studies (randomized controlled trials), like those conducted for prescription medications.
Of the 151 studies, they found just one randomized controlled trial. Researchers reviewed three other studies to include more people. Many people in the studies reported feeling better after undergoing salt therapy. But researchers identified several quality concerns about these four studies.
As a result, researchers were unable to draw any conclusions. Some of the missing or incomplete information included:
- Whether the subjects had COPD or asthma
- What medications the patients took
- How severe their breathing difficulties were at the start of the study
- The long-term effect of the treatment (for example, people were examined only right after treatment)
In some countries, medical societies have warned that salt caves can have negative effects. For example, the salt cave could induce bronchoconstriction in some people.
Another danger is that if you have asthma, you may stop taking your regular medicine. Halotherapy is expensive. Many patients may struggle to afford both prescription medicines and salt therapy. But long-term control medications are needed to help prevent and control asthma symptoms. Take them as your healthcare provider tells you to, even if you feel well.
Is halotherapy safe?
"If your goal is to find a new way to de-stress, salt caves can do the trick. They’re cool, quiet and relaxing," said Maureen George, PhD, RN, AE-C, FAAN, a member of AAFA’s Medical Scientific Council, and an Associate Professor of Nursing at the Columbia University School of Nursing. "If you’re looking for a natural way to treat your asthma, halotherapy is not what you’re looking for. It has not been rigorously studied, despite claims from ‘experts’."
Patients should also know that inhaling concentrated salts (hypertonic saline) has been proven to irritate the airways, causing cough and mucus, which can make asthma worse for some people.
The bottom line:
Halotherapy, or sitting in a salt room, is not likely to make your asthma better. For most asthma patients, halotherapy is “likely safe.” Since you don't know how you will react, AAFA warns that it is best to err on the side of caution and avoid salt rooms.
Randomized controlled trials: Participants are randomly placed into two groups. One group does not receive any treatment. The other group receives the treatment under consideration. Researchers follow both groups over time. At the end of the study, they compare results.
Efficacy: Whether or not a treatment works, and by how much.
Rashleigh R., Smith S.M., Roberts N.J. (2014). A review of halotherapy for chronic obstructive pulmonary disease. International Journal of Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease.
Medical Review May 2016.