Steam inhalation, also known as steam therapy, a home remedy since ancient times to soothe and open the nasal passages and get relief from cold or sinus infection.
The theoretical basis for this recommendation is that steam may help decongested the inflamed mucus membrane of the upper respiratory tract better and may even destroy the cold virus as it does in vitro.
Earlier, some trials have reported benefits of heated, humidified air for symptom relief in people with the common cold and only minor adverse events including discomfort or nasal irritation.
What is Steam Inhalation?
It is the process of inhaling water vapor. Also called steam therapy, it involves the inhalation of water vapor.
The warm, moist air is thought to work by loosening the mucus in the nasal passages, throat, and lungs. This may relieve symptoms of inflamed, swollen blood vessels in your nasal passages.
While steam inhalation won’t cure an infection, like a cold or the flu, it may help make you feel a lot better while your body fights it off.
But as with any home remedy, it’s important to learn best practices so you don’t hurt yourself in the process.
What are the benefits?
Due to acute upper respiratory infection such as a cold or a sinus infection, the blood vessels of the nasal passage may get inflamed which triggers the stuffy nose.
Steam inhalation helps to ease feelings of irritation and swollen blood vessels in the sinus area. Due to therapy, the mucus thins and leads to emptying of the nose easily.
This can allow your breathing to return to normal, at least for a short period of time.
Steam inhalation may provide some temporary relief from the symptoms of:
- Common cold
- Flu (influenza)
- Sinus infections (infectious sinusitis)
- Nasal allergies
Apart from this, steam inhalation helps alleviate:
- Congested (stuffy) nose
- Throat irritation
- Breathing problems caused by airway congestion
- Dry or irritated nasal passages
In addition to helping clear the nose and throat, steam therapy is sometimes used to help with chest congestion.
For example, in a 2018 study on steam therapy with a small group of people with chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), some participants experienced decreased respiratory rate and easier breathing.
Steam therapy may also help people sleep. A 2019 study showed that warm steam inhalation before bedtime helped participants relax and increased deep sleep, which led to improved sleep quality in adult men with mild sleep issues and anxiety.
Steam Inhalation and COVID-19
The steam inhalation seems a logical solution to COVID infection. As the coronavirus is an enveloped virus, is likely to be more heat-sensitive than other viruses.
SARS COV-2 is a crown-shaped virus; single-strand RNA with a lipid coat. Having a lipid coat, it is heat sensitive and rapidly loses viability/infectivity at 56°C in 15 minutes (10000 units per 15 minutes) and then rapidly losing thereafter (>3 log10) becoming completely non-viable at 70°C.
As per evidences, the coronavirus remains and proliferates in the nasophrynx and upper respiratory tract for up to two weeks after exposure and is thus amenable to application of steam.
It is especially useful in stage1 and stage 2 of the disease; high concentration of virus in the oropharynx in asymptomatic stage and high viral loads in the upper respiratory tract during early disease states.
Nonetheless, it might be of only a limited value in advanced disease infecting the lower respiratory tract.
While inhaling steam may help ease some coronavirus symptoms, there is no evidence that steam kills the virus.
The right technique of steam inhalation
Here’s the process:
- Heat up the water to boiling in a pot or kettle. Ensure to make water just steamy.
- Put two handfuls of herbs or essential oils or a camphor stone in the water, and let steep for 10 minutes. Their essence can be left to dissipate in the air, where they can continue to help refresh you and your environment.
- Drape the towel over the back of your head like a tent so that the steam will not escape away.
- Shut your eyes and slowly lower your head toward the hot water until you’re about 8 to 12 inches away from the water. Be extremely careful to avoid making direct contact with the water.
- Inhale the steam for no more than 10 minutes. Turn on a timer.
- For the first 3 to 5 minutes, inhale slowly and deeply through your nose and exhale it from the mouth.
- Similarly, inhale slowly and deeply through your mouth and exhale it from the nose.
You can repeat steam inhalation two or three times per day if you’re still having symptoms.
Additional steam therapy methods include inhaling steam from baths, showers, and steam rooms.
In recent years, portable steam inhalers, also known as vaporizers, have become popular. They come with a built-in mask that fits around your mouth and nose. Make sure to wash them often to prevent bacterial and fungal growth.
Warm saline gargles
Saline gargles are a way of nasopharyngeal wash to prevent the virus from inhabiting and replicating in the nasal and pharyngeal mucosa.
It may act by viral shedding thus reducing viral transmission in cases of viral acute respiratory tract infections.
Steam inhalation with Herbs
Many herbs can help increase the beneficial effects of steam therapy. Here are five popular choices:
- Thyme: This herb is an expectorant (helps loosen mucus) and has antibacterial properties and it’s not an irritant like some stronger oils can be.
- Mint: It has a nice scent, and it helps loosen mucus and is also antibacterial. But cautions against using peppermint essential oil for steam therapy, as it is very strong. Spearmint oil used in vaporizers may be a better choice.
- Eucalyptus: Remember when your Mom rubbed Vicks VapoRub on your chest as a kid? That smell you remember is eucalyptus. It’s great for loosening mucus, but use it in small doses, as it can be overpowering.
- Basil: It’s a decongestant and is naturally antiseptic and antibacterial.
- Rosemary: This herb has antiviral, anti-inflammatory, and antimicrobial properties.
- Camphor: It can also be a great choice to feel refreshed after inhalation.
Using the plants or in the essential oil is recommended to use for steam inhalation, as some other parts may not safe to use. You can even mix some of the herbs together.
- Steam inhalation doesn’t actually kill the virus responsible for the infection. At best, steam inhalation might make you feel a little better as your body fights your cold. It cannot help you relieving all chronic sinus symptoms.
- While steam inhalation can provide subjective relief from the symptoms of cold and other upper respiratory infections, it won’t actually make your infection go away any faster.
- Also, steam inhalation helps people to people in different ways. The steam therapy could feel the alleviation of cold for you but others may experience discomfort inside the nose from it.
- If you are not careful while taking steam, you can hurt yourself unintentionally. Yes, there is a risk of skin burning while handling the hot water. So, make sure that the water is heated just steamy, and do not make contact with your eyes and skin.
- You should keep your child away from the steam. Several studies have shown that children may get scalded and burned using steam therapy, often by accidentally spilling boiling water on themselves or inhaling steam that can burn the delicate lining of their nose, mouth, and airways.
- At the last, for the people with respiratory challenges, steam therapy should not take the place of prescribed medications. Some people may be sensitive to the herbals, and it could trigger airway problems.
Thus, on the balance of logic and evidence and in view of very low side-effects of steam inhalation if done properly, there seems ‘no harm’ in employing this relatively cheap and user-friendly therapy.
It is generally recommended for application twice a day so that the viral colony is unable to develop.
During pandemic, I encouraged myself to get habit of steam inhalation before sleep. This remedy has suited me the most. I feel energised once I take up the inhalation after a long busy day.
What works for one person might not work for you. If you’re feeling under the weather for more than a week or have severe symptoms, make an appointment to see your doctor.
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