The history of use dates back at least 3,500 years – the first mention of this remedy in history was found in the ancient Egyptians papyrus Reel – Steam inhalation is a long-term home remedy for colds and sinus problems.
When you’re sick, inhaling steam from a vaporizer unit or a bowl of hot water may help loosen mucus in your lungs and sinuses, help relieve congestion, relieve a sore throat, and improve hoarseness.
Although steam inhalation is not recommended for children and clinical evidence for some of these benefits is lacking, it is an approach worth considering. This article breaks down what this treatment can do, and how to do it safely.
Medicinal properties of vapor inhalation
First, the medicinal effect of this home remedy is to relieve symptoms of conditions that cause congestion, runny nose and sore throat, such as:
- Common cold (viral infection of the upper respiratory tract – nose and throat)
- Sinus infections (sinusitis, inflammation of the lining of the face and head space)
- Croup (an upper respiratory infection that causes a barking cough)
- Bronchiolitis (a common respiratory infection in infants and young children)
- Bronchitis (inflammation of the lining of the bronchi that carry air in and out of the lungs)
- Allergies (your immune system reacts to a foreign body, causing itchy eyes and skin, a runny nose, and a stuffy nose)
Steam inhalation and sleep
There is a lot of evidence that inhaling steam before bed can help you sleep. A study in adult men found that the practice reduced bedtime anxiety, shortened the time it takes to fall asleep (sleep latency), and improved rest quality.
Benefits of Steam Inhalation for Colds and Sinuses
Many patients with upper respiratory tract infections such as the common cold and sinusitis, found steam inhalation helpful as part of treatment. Generally, treatment for these disorders focuses on rest and fluid intake while managing symptoms.
While inhaling steam won’t kill viruses or bacteria, it may help your body fight infection. While more research is needed on some of the therapy’s purported benefits, some studies — along with anecdotal evidence — have found it to have clinical value.
The five main benefits of steam inhalation for colds and sinus problems are:
- As a sleep aid: Making sure you get enough sleep is essential to fighting colds and sinus infections. Your body needs rest as it battles disease. Breathing in steam at night can help you relax and get ready for bed.
- Treating hoarseness: When your vocal cords (larynx) are stimulated, your voice becomes hoarse and haggard. This can happen due to respiratory illness, exposure to smoke, singing too much, or talking loudly. Steam enters these structures, rehydrating them and improving their mobility and function.
- Sore throat relief: Clinical evidence is mixed on whether inhaling steam actually relieves sore throats. However, this is a long-standing technique that can relieve pain and swelling caused by inflammation of throat tissue.
- Congestion management: Inhaling steam may also help relieve congestion, as it loosens mucus in the lungs, throat, and sinuses (especially prevalent in sinus infections). While the results are mixed, removing mucus can help relieve stress and make breathing easier.
- Nasal Rehydration: Dry and irritated sinuses, especially the nasal passages, may also accompany the common cold and other respiratory infections. In addition to being uncomfortable, they can also cause nosebleeds. Inhalation brings moisture to these areas, which can help relieve symptoms.
In the past, studies have found that hot steam can kill cold-causing viruses in the respiratory system because high temperatures can have this effect on them. However, an extensive review of the literature found no solid evidence for this.
Few adverse events from vapor inhalation have been reported, and no serious side effects have been reported. However, you may burn yourself unintentionally. Most of the time, this happens when people don’t use equipment made for the task and spill boiling water on their legs or other parts of the body.
Because children and infants are prone to such burns, parents and caregivers are currently advised not to try them. Also, take extra care when using boiling water in the kitchen to avoid scalding yourself. Safety tips include:
- Make sure the cup or bowl you are using is on a stable surface
- Close your eyes as you inhale to prevent direct contact
- Watch out for young children or pets
Using a store-bought inhaler can reduce the risk of burns because the water is in an enclosed room. However, be sure to clean all filters and replace them if necessary, as dirty parts can harbor bacteria or viruses.
be careful of burns
Burns are very damaging to the skin, ranging in severity from burns that affect only the outer layers of the skin (type 1), such as sunburns, to burns that cause deeper damage (type 3).
Burns mainly cause pain and swelling, and emergency medical help is needed in the following situations:
- The burns are severe and/or large.
- You have a fever.
- There is excessive and persistent swelling.
- Pus or foul-smelling secretions may flow from the affected area.
- Form blisters with yellow or green liquid.
- The skin is red and swollen.
- Burns that have not healed after 10-14 days.
Although the vapor can be inhaled without the use of special equipment, there are many specialized inhalers on the market. When using these, be sure to read the directions carefully to prevent exposure to boiling water.
Whether you choose to use a device or do it yourself, here’s a quick breakdown of what you’re doing:
- If you don’t have a vaporizer, find a container such as a large bowl or even a large cup.
- Boil water in a kettle or microwave. The evaporator has a heating element for the water.
- Fill a basin with boiling water, put a towel over your head, and set a timer.
- Place your head about 8-12 inches above the water. Close your eyes.
- Place towels to create an enclosed space.
- Breathe in the steam with slow, deep breaths for at least two to five minutes, refilling with hot water every two to three minutes.
- Limit the duration of a single session to 10-15 minutes.
- Repeat two to three times a day as needed.
Interestingly, many people report that adding a few drops of Vick’s VapoSteam or tea tree oil to boiling water may help relieve congestion and other symptoms. For less fuss, you can try inhaling directly from a large cup and wiping it off with a towel. See what works for you.
Vapor inhalation is a popular home remedy for symptoms of colds, sinus infections, and other respiratory problems. Steam inhalation has been shown to help with sleep and relieve hoarseness. Although its results are mixed, it may help soothe a sore throat, soften mucus, and hydrate your sinuses.
A steam inhalation vaporizer can be used, or you can boil water and inhale from a bowl or large cup while wearing a towel over your head. Be careful though, as there is a risk of burns, inhalation of the steam is not recommended for children or infants.
While clinical evidence may lack some of the benefits of vapor inhalation, it is worth considering as part of a broader treatment plan (and using appropriate precautions).
Finding ways to manage your symptoms can help you recover more easily from a cold, sinus infection, or other respiratory problems. As your body fights off the infection and works to relieve symptoms, take care to rest and hydrate, while keeping an eye out for warning signs of a more serious condition.
5 things to do when you’re sick
Frequently Asked Questions
Can essential oils be used while inhaling steam?
Adding essential oils, such as eucalyptus, tea tree, and lavender to boiling water, may help relieve symptoms. Some studies even show that some of them can reduce inflammation and have antibacterial effects on bacterial sinus infections. However, more research is needed, and there is still much that scientists don’t know about.
How long should you do steam inhalation?
It is generally recommended to steam for at least two to five minutes. However, you don’t want to go for more than 10-15 minutes in one session. That said, you can try up to three sessions per day if you want.
Do you have to have a steam inhaler?
While a vapor suction vaporizer makes the process convenient, you don’t need special equipment for this treatment. You’ll need to have a towel, a good sturdy bowl, a timer, and a kettle or microwave for boiling water on hand.