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A sauna is a small room or house designed as a place to experience dry or wet/dry heat sessions, or an establishment with one or more of these and auxiliary facilities, or the act of using a sauna. Taking a sauna is usually a social affair in which the participants disrobe and sit or recline in temperatures of over 40 °C or 100 °F. This induces relaxation and promotes sweating. In some styles of sauna water is periodically trickled over hot stones to generate a rush of steam. Sometimes fragrant branches and leaves are lightly slapped on the skin, supposedly to promote better circulation. It is believed by some that heavy sweating helps to remove 'toxins' from the body.

The Finnish sauna is the most widely known, but many cultures have close equivalents, such as the North American First Nations sweat lodge and the Turkish steam bath. Most North American college/university physical education complexes and many public sports centers include sauna facilities. They may also be present in a public swimming pool. This may either be separate area where swimming wear is taken off, or a smaller facility in the swimming pool area where one should keep the swimming wear on.

The sauna can be so soothing that heat prostration or even hyperthermia (heat stroke) can result. A sometimes customary practice of taking a cool shower or plunge afterwards always results in a great increase in blood pressure, so extreme moderation is advised for those with a history of stroke or hypertension (high blood pressure). In Finland sauna is thought as a healing refreshment and has been used to cure people from all diseases through the times.

Alcoholic drinks are almost never used in the sauna, as the effects of heat and alcohol are cumulative despite in the Finnish sauna culture a beer after a sauna is thought to be refreshing and relaxing.

Social and mixed gender nudity with adults and children is quite common in the conventional sauna, with a strict prohibition of any form of sexual activity.

Some adult-only saunas have different rules; the term "sauna" is also used for a bath-house, sometimes with facilities like a standard sauna, where people go to find sexual partners and have sex on the premises. Some such saunas rent small rooms for this purpose.

A Turkish style sauna establishment is called hamam.

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