Can Infrared Saunas Cause Herxheimer Reactions? (Lyme Disease Therapy)

Lyme disease typically develops after being bitten by an infected deer tick, and it causes extreme flu-like symptoms. The treatment is a course of antibiotics. Patients typically report feeling worse before they get better, an occurrence often referred to as the Jarisch-Herxheimer reaction (Herxheimer or just Herx for short). Is it possible to trigger a similar reaction with an infrared sauna?

Infrared saunas can’t cause a Herheimer reaction as they cannot safely increase the user’s internal temperature to the level necessary to kill off the infecting bacteria. While time in an infrared sauna may help accelerate the Herxheimer detoxification process, do not attempt a session without first consulting your doctor.

Read on to learn more about Herxheimer Reactions and whether and how a sauna session might help your road to recovery.

Infrared saunas and the Herxheimer reaction

Herxheimer reactions are caused by the onset of treatment for spirochetal infections, typically for Lyme Disease, syphilis, and tick-borne relapsing fever. This period is often referred to as detox and can last up to a few weeks.

The Herxheimer reaction often leads to reports of sick patients feeling much worse before they begin to feel better. This is because the Herx is in response to the death of the offending bacteria rather than the type of detoxification sauna users typically experience.

Infrared saunas can help you sweat out fat-soluble toxins and heavy metals such as arsenic, cadmium, and mercury, but they are ineffective against bacteria. However, the heat of the sauna may help accelerate the process as bacteria are susceptible to temperature changes. Unfortunately, the heat required to kill off bacteria in the body is also dangerous for the body itself (and the brain inside it!).

If you don’t already have a fever – your body’s way of fighting off the infection through heat – a sauna may be helpful, but it’s important to consult your doctor before attempting the visit. Between the antibiotics, your body’s own detox from the Herxheimer reaction, and a potential visit to the sauna, you’re likely to end up dehydrated, which would make your situation much worse.

What is the Herxheimer reaction?

The Jarisch Herxheimer Reaction, also known as a Herx reaction or Herx effect, is sort of like rolling down a hill to get to the bottom – it’s faster, but it’s sure going to hurt. 

Herxheimer reactions are adverse reactions to the antibiotic treatment of a spirochete infection. Spirochete bacterial infections include syphilis, Lyme disease, leptospirosis, and several forms of relapsing fever. In this reaction, the bacteria begin to die off things to the antibiotics and make you much sicker all at once before they’re purged.

Herxheimer reactions may result from the use of many different antibiotics, but only when used to treat spirochete infections. Bacterial infections by other families of non-spirochete bacteria do not exhibit this response even when treated with the same antibiotics, though there have been some responses with similar characteristics reported during the treatment of infections outside the spirochete family recently.

Symptoms range from flu-like nausea and vomiting with fever, chills, headache, and muscle pain to much more serious effects like the exacerbation of skin lesions, tachycardia, hyperventilation, hypotension, or even hallucinations and seizures.

On the plus side, Herx reactions are usually short-lived. Those unlucky enough to experience such a response to their antibiotics generally start to feel the effects within 24 hours of treatment, and symptoms tend to last only a few hours even without medical intervention.

What causes a Herxheimer reaction?

Not all spirochetal infection treatments will result in a Herxheimer reaction. For example, only 7-30% of Lyme disease sufferers are likely to experience it, as opposed to 95% of patients being treated for syphilis infection.

Some antibiotics may cause a short-term immune response in patients at the beginning of treatment, which may be responsible for some Herx reactions. In either case, Jarisch Herxheimer Reactions are the result of antibiotic therapy. No research suggests that sauna use, infrared or otherwise, can cause a Herx reaction.

One potential cause of a Herx effect is the release of endotoxins into your body by the dying bacteria, initiated by antibiotic treatment. Many species of microbes produce some form of toxin which serves to protect them. The penicillin of historical antibiotic fame is actually a toxin secreted by a particular species of penicillium mold. That toxin is deadly to many bacteria without causing harm to humans, making it an excellent antibiotic. 

One theory is that the sudden secretion of endotoxins from the bacteria killed en masse in the early hours of antibiotic treatment could cause Herxheimer reactions. For example, infection with the spirochete Borrelia burgdorferi causes the disease we know as Lyme Disease, and research is beginning to show that some of the symptoms of Lyme disease are caused by a toxin known to be produced and released by B. burgdorferi rather than being caused by the bacteria itself.

Another proposed cause of Herxheimer reactions is your immune system’s mass production of cytokines. Cytokines are small proteins secreted by many types of cells but are generally associated with an immune response, predominantly produced by helper T cells and macrophages. Cytokines are involved in many cascading biological pathways, sometimes resulting in an inappropriate inflammation or pain response in the body. 

Can infrared sauna help with Herxheimer Reactions?

No research suggests that an elevated body temperature causes a Herxheimer reaction.

Unfortunately, there is no research yet to support the idea that using an infrared sauna provides many benefits to an ongoing Herx Reaction. 

However, it may be possible that a few minutes of sauna time can help to alleviate the severity and duration of some symptoms like myalgia and chills.

How infrared sauna helps with Herx

An infrared sauna cannot help with any of the causes of a Herxheimer reaction. 

Depending on the nature of your Herx response, you may get some relief from your reaction symptoms. The heat from the sauna may help ease muscle pain or limit your experience of fever-related chills. 

Take care if you use an infrared sauna during a Herx response, though. Sauna use is associated with dilation of surface blood vessels and a resulting drop in blood pressure. This may exacerbate the hypotension and tachycardia, sometimes accompanying a Herx effect. 

If you are not experiencing those particular Herx symptoms, the increase in circulation caused by the body’s efforts to keep itself cool may help to rid you of an accumulation of dead bacteria and other cellular debris and toxins released in the course of antibiotic treatment.

Put another way, increased blood circulation to all parts of the body includes an increase of circulation through filtering organs. This detoxification increase might help shorten the time you spend suffering your Herx response.

Is a sauna considered a valid treatment for Lyme Disease?

There are many doctors and clinics which believe Borrelia burgdorferi (the species of spirochetes that cause Lyme Disease) can be killed off by raising the body temperature to 106℉ or above, a state referred to as “hyperthermia.” Human bodies often try to combat various infections by raising their core temperatures – we feel this as a fever.

With that having been said, fevers over 104℉ can be very dangerous for the brain and other critical processes. Attempting to raise your core body temperature to or beyond this point may cause seizures or other serious ramifications and should not be carried out without the direct supervision of an attending physician. 

There is very little, if any, peer-reviewed evidence to support the idea that inducing hyperthermia is an effective method for killing bacteria at this point in time. The positive effects experienced by sauna users with Lyme disease are almost certainly derivative of a more generalized increase in circulation. While spending time in a sauna may help to ameliorate a flare of Lyme Disease symptoms on a short-term basis, it does not constitute disease treatment.

Overall, spending time in an infrared sauna, or any sauna for that matter, is not a valid treatment for Lyme Disease.

This is not to say that you won’t see any potential positive effects at all from sauna usage. The increase in circulation resulting from the body’s attempt to restore homeostasis under the hundred-degree mark can be very helpful in clearing out dead bacteria and other cellular debris.

Other reasons that I might feel sick after the infrared sauna

There are a few reasons you might leave an infrared sauna feeling worse than you did going in.

You might feel sick after using an infrared sauna due to:

  • Dehydration – A large portion of sauna usage benefits stem from sweating. If you don’t take care to replenish that fluid, the body and all of its cellular processes will begin to suffer. 
  • Low blood pressure – Quite the opposite of a cold plunge, warming your body temporarily dilates your blood vessels. As a result, a greater blood volume can circulate to your extremities. Unfortunately, this also means less blood stays in and around your vital organs.
  • Electrolyte imbalance – While the process of sweating has detoxifying benefits, one of its downsides is the loss of electrolytes that your body needs to function. Signs of significant electrolyte loss via sweating include lightheadedness, a drop in blood pressure, or a general malaise that can often be put straight with the consumption of a bottle of almost any sports beverage.
  • Heat exhaustion – While you relax in a sauna, your body works hard to maintain or restore homeostasis at 98.6℉. This requires a large energy expenditure, and you may find yourself feeling very tired after any amount of time in a sauna.