Fearing the congested onslaught of a developing head cold, Vogue reporter Lauren Lipton skipped the nasal sprays and Emergen-C packets and instead opted to hit the spa for a dose of Halotherapy, the practice of breathing dry, salt-saturated air that is praised by devotees for soothing inflammation, calming allergies, and flushing away germs. And while it may sound a bit odd, the wellness-enhancing power of salt dates back almost as far as medicine itself: Plato said "The sea cures all ailments of man,“ and Plato, Hippocrates and Aristotle all recommended hot seawater baths, claiming that the inhalation of their steam could aid in the relief of respiratory ailments. (Halotherapy is named after the Greek word halo, meaning salt, after all.)
The modern discovery of the wellness-promoting power of salt can be credited to Polish physician Dr. Felix Bochkowsky, who first made note of the remarkable respiratory health of workers in a nearby salt mine during the mid-19th century. Unlike coal miners, who frequently battled chronic respiratory ailments, salt miners were not only rarely ill, Bochkowsky realized, but they were also often healthier than most other people in the community.
“People have been going to the sea shore, to salt baths, for centuries to feel better,” Francis Adams, MD, pulmonologist and clinical assistant professor of Medicine at NYU Langone Medical Center, told Yahoo Health. Breathing in salt-saturated air “has been demonstrated to be helpful with people who have lung disease, particularly patients with cystic fibrosis, in which there’s a collection of very tenacious mucus in the lungs. Or for those who have bronchiectasis, where you get this mucus that acts like a cork in a bottle that blocks the flow of air in the lungs that can lead to coughing and infections.”
So how does it work? “We think that the salty air draws water into those airways that have the thickened plugs of mucus, loosens those plugs, and allows the individuals to clear out, kind of clean out, this material,” he explains. “In studies of children with cystic fibrosis, those exposed to salty air for many weeks definitely did better, and needed antibiotics less frequently, because they weren’t getting as many infections.”
While Adams said that a dry environment, like a salt spa, might not have quite as much of an impact for sufferers as that of regular visits to the seaside, he was optimistic that “inhaling salty air would still have that effect of drawing water into the bronchial tubes, so yes, there would be some benefit from the salt rooms” found in spas like Manhattan’s Breathe Easy, which touts dry salt therapy as “a toothbrush for the lungs and skin” and claims it provides “a natural, holistic way for adults and children to detoxify their lungs and skin to promote better breathing, sounder sleep and overall wellness,” among other things.
As we head into cold and flu season, Adams says salt caves could help those suffering from coughs, sinus infections, and nasal congestion. “In fact, I often recommend for people with colds to use a salt nasal spray, a saline nasal rinse, which is salt over the counter,” he told Yahoo Health. “That’s my number one recommendation for people with viral head colds, to rinse their sinuses with saline. So they would definitely benefit from salt in the atmosphere.”
Related: Do You Have a Cold…Or The Flu?
And you don’t have to wile the entire day away inside of a salt spa to see some relief, he explained. “Generally the benefit could be seen within 30 to 60 minutes.”
Salt spas also encourage mediation and relaxation, with some even offering “salty yoga classes” in the space, and Adams says these practices almost couldn’t be more beneficial to our general well-being. “It’s clear that many types of medical conditions respond to meditation. In my breathing patients, we certainly have studies showing that patients who do yoga or meditate definitely reduce the work of breathing and reduce the terrible feeling of shortness of breath. It also helps the immune system, which helps lower the risk of developing an infection. We all can benefit from this type of stress reduction.”
As for Vogue reporter Lauren Lipton, who sought to outsmart an oncoming head cold with a trip to the salt spa: She “spent 25 minutes breathing (and dozing) in a high-salinity environment—and sure enough, that cold never materialized.”
If you can’t stand the symptoms of your latest head cold, a visit to the salt spa might just be worth a try.