A do-it-yourself therapy is the most popular way of steam inhalation. Lynn Gershan, M.D., a trained medical herbalist and pediatrician at the University of Minnesota Medical School, reveals her 6-step DIY process:
Gershan does not recommend steam inhalation for children under the age of 12. “Kids don’t like it, and the risks outweigh the benefits,” she said. They can be scalded and injured while utilizing steam therapy, frequently by inadvertently splashing boiling water on themselves or inhaling steam that can burn the delicate lining of the nose, mouth and airway (2).
Inhaling steam from bathtubs, showers, and steam rooms is another way of steam therapy. Portable steam inhalers, commonly known as vaporizers, have grown in popularity in recent years. “I recommend them to many of my patients, and you can get one cheaply on Amazon,” says ENT specialist and head and neck surgeon Jacqueline Jones, M.D.
To use a vaporizer, fill it up to the fill line with water (filtered water is best), plug it in, and turn it on. The water is progressively heated until it boils, and the steam produced passes through the hole in the vaporizer, where it can be inhaled.
Some vaporizers contain essential oil chambers, or you can add the oil to the water. Jones recommends beginning with two drops of essential oils and stopping when you can smell them in the steam. She also suggests using a sterile nasal saline solution after steam therapy to clean up the loosened secretions.
After each usage, make sure to clean portable steam inhalers. Otherwise, they may become moldy, which can irritate noses, throats, and lungs. They can also harbor bacteria and viruses, which can lead to infection if not cleaned properly.
Diseases and Conditions That Can be Treated With Steam Inhalation
“I advise my patients with blocked nasal passages and nasal congestion to use steam inhalation.” The flu, seasonal colds, sinus infections, and allergies are common triggers,” says Jay Woody, M.D., emergency room physician and Intuitive Health’s chief medical officer.
Steam therapy is occasionally used to aid with chest congestion in addition to clearing the nose and throat (3). In a 2018 trial on steam therapy with a small sample of persons with chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), for example, some participants observed reduced respiratory rate and easier breathing (4).
More research is needed, however, to assess the impact of steam therapy on persons with lung problems. Gershan also cautions that steam therapy should not be used in place of authorized drugs in persons with respiratory issues. Some people may be sensitive to herbals, which may cause airway difficulties.
Steam therapy may also aid in sleep. A 2019 study found that inhaling heated steam before bedtime helped participants relax and enhance deep sleep, resulting in better sleep quality in adult men with modest sleep difficulties and anxiety (5).
Herbs that are Best for Inhaling Steam
Many herbs can help to enhance the benefits of steam therapy. Here are five popular alternatives:
It is an expectorant (it helps loosen mucus) with antimicrobial effects (6). “It’s my favorite essential oil for steam therapy because it has great benefits, and it’s not an irritant like some stronger oils can be,” Jones said.
Mint leaves have a nice scent, helps loosen mucus and is also antibacterial (7). Gershan warns against using peppermint essential oil for steam therapy because it is extremely potent. Spearmint oil in vaporizers might be a better option.
Remember when your mother used to put Vicks VapoRub on your chest when you were a kid? The smell you recall is eucalyptus. It works well for loosening mucus (8), but use it in small amounts because it can be overpowering.
Gershan enjoys this one as well. It acts as a decongestant and is antiseptic and antibacterial by nature.
According to Gershan, this herb contains antiviral, anti-inflammatory, and antibacterial effects.
What’s the nicest part about using these herbs? They can be found locally or in your own indoor or outdoor herb garden. Gershan advises using only the leaves of the plants because other portions are toxic. If you’re doing it yourself, you can even combine some of the plants.
- Effects of steam inhalation on nasal patency and nasal symptoms in patients with the common cold
Ophir D, Elad Y. Effects of steam inhalation on nasal patency and nasal symptoms in patients with the common cold. Am J Otolaryngol. 1987 May-Jun;8(3):149-53. doi: 10.1016/s0196-0709(87)80037-6. PMID: 3303983.
- Steam inhalation and paediatric burns during the COVID-19 pandemic
- Steam inhalation in respiratory illnesses full steam ahead or full stop? A Systematic Review of Randomized Controlled Trials
Mathew, J.L. Steam inhalation in respiratory illnesses full steam ahead or full stop? A Systematic Review of Randomized Controlled Trials. Indian Pediatr 47, 1047-1050 (2010). https://doi.org/10.1007/s13312-010-0168-1
- The Effects of a Warmed Steam Inhalation on Patients with Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease: A Cross-Sectional, Controlled Study
- Warm Steam Inhalation before Bedtime Improved Sleep Quality in Adult Men
Ichiba T, Kakiuchi K, Suzuki M, Uchiyama M. Warm Steam Inhalation before Bedtime Improved Sleep Quality in Adult Men. Evid Based Complement Alternat Med. 2019 Aug 25;2019:2453483. doi: 10.1155/2019/2453483. PMID: 31534462; PMCID: PMC6732600.
- Thymol and Thyme Essential Oil-New Insights into Selected Therapeutic Applications
Kowalczyk A, Przychodna M, Sopata S, Bodalska A, Fecka I. Thymol and Thyme Essential Oil-New Insights into Selected Therapeutic Applications. Molecules. 2020 Sep 9;25(18):4125. doi: 10.3390/molecules25184125. PMID: 32917001; PMCID: PMC7571078.
- Theoretical effectiveness of steam inhalation against SARS-CoV-2 infection: updates on clinical trials, mechanism of actions, and traditional approaches
Chowdhury MNR, Alif YA, Alam S, Emon NU, Richi FT, Zihad SMNK, Taki MTI, Rashid MA. Theoretical effectiveness of steam inhalation against SARS-CoV-2 infection: updates on clinical trials, mechanism of actions, and traditional approaches. Heliyon. 2022 Jan;8(1):e08816. doi: 10.1016/j.heliyon.2022.e08816. Epub 2022 Jan 23. PMID: 35097233; PMCID: PMC8783838.
- Immune-modifying and antimicrobial effects of Eucalyptus oil and simple inhalation devices
Sadlon AE, Lamson DW. Immune-modifying and antimicrobial effects of Eucalyptus oil and simple inhalation devices. Altern Med Rev. 2010 Apr;15(1):33-47. PMID: 20359267.