Almost everyone has heard of the old folk remedy of inhaling steam for colds, whether it’s by standing in a steamy shower or with your head over a bowl of hot water. But does it really work? And is it worth giving it a go? Here’s a few compelling reasons to vote “yes”.
1. It’s completely, 100% natural.
The number one benefit? Steam therapy is absolutely natural. In fact, it’s about as close to nature as you can get, since our bodies are made up of 50-60% water and steam is just droplets of water. Quite simply, you are renewing one of your body’s natural biochemical elements.
That being said, as with anything involving hot water, caution does need to be used. Traditional methods of steam therapy are fine for adults or older teens but when using steam therapy for babies and children with stuffy noses and coughs, a steam vaporiser unit is recommended.
Vaporisers have the added advantage of being able to run for 12-14 hours overnight, delivering a consistent flow of warm, humidified air into the child’s room to help ease congestion and allow a better night’s sleep. For advice on which vaporiser to choose, see your local pharmacist.
2. It’s cheap… or almost free
Here’s a hot tip: excluding the cost of the water and the electricity to heat it, you can’t beat steam therapy for economy when treating colds.
This is especially true of the most basic ‘hot water out of the tap, in a bowl, head covered with a towel’ method (see ‘How to use steam therapy’ below). But even if you invest in a personal hand-held vapour inhaler or a warm steam vaporiser unit (which use no more electricity than a kettle or a toaster), these are purchases which will last many cold and flu seasons and hundreds of colds, paying for themselves over and over as the cost of cold & flu medications continues to rise.
3. It’s tried and tested for 3500 years
Steam therapy, or steam inhalation, is the method of introducing warm moist air into the lungs via the nose and throat for therapeutic benefit. But we are far from the first culture to have thought of it.
Ancient Egyptians built ‘bath houses’ for this very purpose - two story buildings which appeared to have fulfilled the role of public bath, beauty parlour and hospital all in one (almost every disease in Egypt was treated with the help of water, literally considered the ‘river of life’). Archaeologists have since discovered evidence of “steam rooms”: cabins filled with steam and aromatic herbs to help treat various ailments. In one of the most ancient Egyptian papyri, called Initial book of transformation of the old and the young the author ranks steam baths as a top means of rejuvenation, health improvement and “to get rid of unpleasant signs of old age”.
But how does steam therapy stack up against modern science? Although only a handful of trials have been undertaken to date they’ve mostly shown positive results. One well-designed clinical trial of 62 patients concluded steam inhalation resulted in alleviation of cold symptoms and improved nasal patency (how open the nasal passages are) compared to the placebo-treated group. The ancient Egyptians - not to mention centuries of grandmas everywhere - would also likely agree.
Respiratory benefits of Steam
Alleviates soreness and inflammation of the throat
Liquefies mucous secretions, resulting in clearer secretions that are easier to expel by coughing or blowing the nose
Relaxes throat muscles, reducing the cough reflex
Dilates blood vessels, encouraging better blood flow and overall circulation
Ways to Use Steam Therapy
- Traditional: Boil a few cups of water then pour the steaming water into a large bowl. Place gently on a firm flat surface, such as a kitchen table. Put a towel over your head to form a ‘tent’. Lean over with your face 15-20cm from the steam and inhale.
- Shower: Run a hot shower and inhale the steam – you can even use essential oils to help refresh and revitalise.
- Personal inhalers: Personal hand-held vapour inhalers - like this and this are an easy and portable way to enjoy steam therapy on the go.
- A great idea for the office or holidays, they are also popular with public speakers, actors and singers to help open up the airways before performance.
- Warm Steam Vaporisers: Steam Vaporisers are plug-in electrical units which produce a steady flow of warm, humidified air to help ease cold symptoms. Very useful in the bedroom overnight, they can also be helpful during the day to raise humidity to healthy levels, particularly in winter to combat the drying effect of central air-conditioning. Click here to find out why humidity is so important to our health.
Effects of steam inhalation of nasal patency and nasal symptoms in patients with the common cold. Ophir et al, Am J Otolaryngol, 1987 May-Jun;8(3):149-53.