Steam inhalers can help treat colds, sinus congestion, and chronic rhinosinusitis. Studies suggest that this practice may have some benefits but can also result in complications like burns. This article will explore what steam inhalation is, when and why you may consider using it, the dos and don’ts of this treatment, and what role essential oils may play in this treatment.
Steam inhalation is a long-standing practice to help relieve cold, congestion, and sinus infection symptoms.
Complications from steam inhalation have been documented, mainly scald burns caused by boiling water spilling while performing steam inhalation.
Adding essential oils to the boiling water for steam inhalation can provide additional benefits, including providing antibacterial activity against respiratory tract pathogens.
Special care and safety measures are vital when using steam inhalation to prevent injury.
What are steam inhalers?
Steam inhalation is a common practice to treat cold and congestion symptoms in adults and children. This treatment consists of breathing in steam from heated water to help soothe and open the nasal passages when you have a cold or sinus infection. The warm, moist air can help loosen mucus and decrease symptoms.
Evidence that suggests that steam inhalation can be helpful when you have:
- Tired, sore, or hoarse voice
- Dry throat
- Cough or thick mucus
- Exposure to a dry or smoky environment
Steam inhalation is a popular home remedy for colds, bronchiolitis, and croup. It helps to moisten nasal passages and loosen mucus, which improves congestion and drainage.
Steam inhalation will not cure you from a cold or infection, but it can relieve the symptoms associated with your illness and help you feel better.
How to use a steam inhaler
There are different techniques you can use for steam inhalation. There are steam-inhaling mugs that you can buy, which allow you to relax, read, or watch TV while inhaling the steam.
Another method is boiling water and sitting over it with a towel over your head, or you can buy an electrical steal inhaler that pumps out a continuous stream of temperature-controlled steam.
When using steam inhalation, you should breathe normally and allow the steam to enter your nose and mouth for 10–15 minutes. Add boiled water to the device you are using to steam; it will cool down and lose the steam.
Steam inhalation systems that are purchased online or in stores are generally safer because the water cannot spill as easily, which prevents scalds and burns from occurring.
Benefits of steam inhalers
Evidence suggests that steam inhalation can benefit those with symptoms of a common cold, congestion, bronchitis, and croup because it can help loosen up the mucus to encourage draining, which relieves congestion symptoms. Inhaling steam has been shown to help alleviate symptoms such as:
- Sore throat
- Breathing difficulties
- Dry or irritated nasal passages
The dos and don’ts of steam inhalers
While steam inhalation has shown evidence of improving symptoms of the common cold, steaming accidents have resulted in burns in both the young and elderly. It is essential to implement necessary precautions to avoid any potential harm.
To prevent injury from steam inhalation, follow these dos and don'ts to ensure your safety and the safety of others.
Using essential oils with steam inhalers
Adding essential oils to a steam inhaler can provide additional relief for cold and sinus symptoms. Essential oils are all-natural and chemical-free and can easily reach both the upper and lower respiratory tracts through inhalation. Studies have found that essential oils can provide antibacterial activity against respiratory tract pathogens in a liquid medium or a vapor phase. The following oils have been found to provide respiratory benefits when added to steam inhalation:
- Thyme, clove, and eucalyptus. May provide antibacterial activity against respiratory tract pathogens.
- Cinnamon bark. May help fight pneumonia and influenza.
- Rosemary. Can calm the muscles in your trachea to give you respiratory relief.
- Cinnamon, thyme, peppermint, and citronella. Have potent antimicrobial activity in vapor and liquid form.
To inhale steam with essential oils:
- Boil a pot of water and carefully pour the hot water into a bowl.
- Add three drops of the essential oil and then drape a towel over the back of your head.
- Set your timer so that you don't exceed 10–15 minutes.
- Shut your eyes and slowly lower your head toward the hot water until you are about 8–12 inches from the water.
Do not make direct contact with the water. Inhale the steam slowly and deeply through your nose for two to five minutes. Ensure you don't steam for more than 10–15 minutes each session; do not do more than two sessions in one day.
Considerations when using a steam inhaler
The National Institute for Clinical Excellent (NICE) recommends using steam inhalation as a symptomatic remedy to help relieve congestion. However, other studies have found that steam inhalation treatment for the common cold was inadequate.
None of the studies done found that steam inhalation worsened symptoms. However, they did find that steam inhalation has been associated with complications. Scald injuries from steam inhalation account for over 65% of burns in children under age 5. Studies have shown that steam inhalation has caused scald injuries to children and adults. Scalds are often sustained during steam therapy from tipping hot water from bowls.
NICE recommends that “care should be taken to avoid scalding.” NICE also recommended sitting in the bathroom with a running hot shower as a safe option for steam inhalation, especially with children. If performing steam inhalation by inhaling the steam of freshly boiled water, special care needs to be taken to avoid spilling the bowl and suffering a scald injury.
While there are benefits to using steam inhalation, there are also risks associated with it. Special care and safety measures must be in place to avoid injury. Adding three drops of essential oil such as thyme, clove, eucalyptus, cinnamon, rosemary, peppermint, or citronella can help provide additional symptom relief and antibacterial activity against respiratory tract pathogens. This can help your body fight off illnesses such as pneumonia and influenza while giving you respiratory relief.
- Burns. Steam inhalation: More harm than good? Perspective from a UK burn center.
- Fife Health & Social Care Partnership. Steam Inhalation.
- BMC Complementary Medicine and Therapies. Antibacterial activity evaluation of selected essential oils in liquid and vapor phase on respiratory tract pathogens.