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Steam Therapy for Cough: Benefits and Instructions

Marion Sereti

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November 1, 2022
CoughPro is not a medical product. It is a wellness app intended only for users to obtain a better understanding of their cough. It is not intended to diagnose, monitor, or treat any illness.

We at Hyfe, Inc., are a company devoted to working on tools to better understand the importance of cough. It is Hyfe’s intention in the future to seek regulatory approval for medical products that analyze cough in order that they may be used to diagnose, monitor, and facilitate better treatment of respiratory illnesses.

A girl drinking something hot that is steaming

Throughout history, steam has been employed for many purposes– cooking meals, powering appliances, or cleaning surfaces. Healthwise, steam therapy is an ancient method used to help with recovery from cough symptoms and is one of the easiest home remedies. 

What Is Steam Therapy?

Steam therapy involves breathing in water vapors from warmed or continuously heated water. The warm vapour moisturizes the dry/stuffy mucus membranes in the nose and throat, which helps loosen mucus. This provides temporary relief from chest congestion and agitation during cough, flu, and cold.

Benefits of Steam Therapy

Overall, steam therapy may provide temporary relief of respiratory symptoms.

1. Improves Sleep Quality

There’s significant evidence that steam inhalation before bed can help with sleep. In a 2019 study, participants found((Ichiba, T., Kakiuchi, K., Suzuki, M., & Uchiyama, M. (2019). Warm Steam Inhalation before Bedtime Improved Sleep Quality in Adult Men. Evidence-Based Complementary and Alternative Medicine. https://doi.org/10.1155/2019/2453483)) this therapy eased bedtime anxiety, shortened the time taken to fall asleep (sleep latency), and improved the quality of rest. Think of when you’ve had a steamy shower and how your night’s sleep was more relaxing or day more productive afterward! Steam assists by providing relief for irritated stuffy nose and throat that may otherwise make it difficult for us to breathe and keep us up late at night. 

2. Promotes Optimal Breathing

Steam opens up nasal passages. In addition to helping to loosen up mucus and phlegm, the hot, humid air may also lessen throat and lung inflammation; also, it's commonly recognized that steam rooms have the potential to be expectorants((Basch, F. P., Holinger, P., & Poncher, H. G. (1941). Physical and Chemical Properties of Sputum: II. Influence of Drugs, Steam, Carbon Dioxide and Oxygen. American Journal of Diseases of Children, 62(6), pp. 1149-1171. https://jamanetwork.com/journals/jamapediatrics/article-abstract/1179344)). Evidence suggests that steam therapy can significantly relieve severe respiratory distress((Singh, M., Singhi, S., & Walia, B. N. (1990). Evaluation of steam therapy in acute lower respiratory tract infections: a pilot study. Indian pediatrics, 27(9), pp. 945–951. https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/2286438/)) in some patients. It may also be beneficial for athletes who have a history of exercise-induced asthma.

3. Promotes Sinus Drainage and May Help Loosen Bronchial Secretions

Steam therapy is good for the nose and throat. For the nose, it helps ease the feeling of a blockage and soothes the irritation in your nasal passages. Moisture in the steam thins mucus in your sinuses((Basch, F. P., Holinger, P., & Poncher, H. G. (1941). Physical and Chemical Properties of Sputum: II. Influence of Drugs, Steam, Carbon Dioxide and Oxygen. American Journal of Diseases of Children, 62(6), pp. 1149-1171. https://jamanetwork.com/journals/jamapediatrics/article-abstract/1179344)), allowing normal breathing. When you have a cold, it can help get rid of cold symptoms like a sore throat, a stuffy nose, and a mild headache.

What Conditions Can Steam Inhalation Help With?

Steam therapy can provide temporary relief of particular symptoms and conditions such as:

  • Phlegm or mucus congestion((Basch, F. P., Holinger, P., & Poncher, H. G. (1941). Physical and Chemical Properties of Sputum: II. Influence of Drugs, Steam, Carbon Dioxide and Oxygen. American Journal of Diseases of Children, 62(6), pp. 1149-1171. https://jamanetwork.com/journals/jamapediatrics/article-abstract/1179344 ))
  • Dryness of throat((Fujita, Y., Yamauchi, M., Uyama, H., Oda, H., Igaki, M., Yoshikawa, M., & Kimura, H. (2019). The effects of heated humidification to nasopharynx on nasal resistance and breathing pattern. PloS one, 14(2), e0210957. https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0210957))
  • Bronchitis((Singh, M., Singhi, S., & Walia, B. N. (1990). Evaluation of steam therapy in acute lower respiratory tract infections: a pilot study. Indian pediatrics, 27(9), pp. 945–951. https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/2286438/))
  • Influenza1
  • Sinusitis (inflammation of the sinuses)((Vathanophas, V., Pattamakajonpong, P., Assanasen, P., & Suwanwech, T. (2021). The effect of steam inhalation on nasal obstruction in patients with allergic rhinitis. Asian Pacific Journal of Allergy and Immunology, 39(4). https://doi.org/10.12932/ap-090818-0393))
  • Headache from a respiratory tract infection((Little, P., Stuart, B., Mullee, M., Thomas, T., Johnson, S., Leydon, G., Rabago, D., Richards-Hall, S., Williamson, I., Yao, G., Raftery, J., Zhu, S., & Moore, M. (2016). Effectiveness of steam inhalation and nasal irrigation for chronic or recurrent sinus symptoms in primary care: a pragmatic randomized controlled trial. Canadian Medical Association Journal, 188(13), pp. 940–949. https://doi.org/10.1503/cmaj.160362))
  • Common colds((Ophir, D., & Elad, Y. (1987). Effects of steam inhalation on nasal patency and nasal symptoms in patients with the common cold. American Journal of Otolaryngology, 8(3). pp. 149–153. https://doi.org/10.1016/s0196-0709(87)80037-6)) (particularly when used with decongestant herbs)((Nanda, M. S. (2015). Efficacy of Steam Inhalation with Inhalant Capsules in Patients with Common Cold in a Rural Set Up. IOSR Journal of Dental and Medical Sciences, 14(1-2), pp. 374–41. https://iosrjournals.org/iosr-jdms/papers/Vol14-issue1/Version-2/K014123741.pdf))
  • Seasonal allergies((Vathanophas, V., Pattamakajonpong, P., Assanasen, P., & Suwanwech, T. (2021). The effect of steam inhalation on nasal obstruction in patients with allergic rhinitis. Asian Pacific Journal of Allergy and Immunology, 39(4). https://doi.org/10.12932/ap-090818-0393))
Steam coming out of a pot

How to Do Steam Therapy Safely

The conventional way of doing steam therapy requires at least the following equipment:

  • A bowl
  • Fresh water
  • A towel
  • A kettle, a stove, or a microwave – i.e., a way to heat the water

Then, you can dive into the process as follows: 

  • Begin by heating a pot of water or boiling the kettle until steam forms
  • Carefully pour the hot, steaming water into the large bowl and set it down on a flat surface
  • Put the towel over your head so it covers your face and the back of your head
  • Close your eyes and hunch over the bowl, about 10 inches away from the water, and use the towel to form a dome over yourself and the bowl
  • Start breathing in the steam
  • Keep inhaling until the water has cooled to the point that vapor formation stops
  • Uncover yourself slowly to maintain the body temperature – don’t fling the towel off

Avoid steaming for longer than 10 to 15 minutes at a time. However, you can perform steam therapy two or three times in a day.

Other steam therapy techniques include:

  • Steam bath
  • Steam shower
  • Use of steam rooms
  • Portable steam inhalers 

Portable steam inhalers, commonly referred to as vaporizers, have particularly gained popularity as using a steam inhaler is easy and convenient. Using electrical heat, the vaporizer creates steam that is warmed before it leaves the device. Some vaporizers have a built-in mask that fits over the mouth and nose, meaning there is no need for a towel. Vaporizers need to be washed and cleaned often to avoid bacterial or fungal growth((Kohler, P. F., Gross, G., Salvaggio, J., & Hawkins, J. (1976). Humidifier Lung: Hypersensitivity Pneumonitis Related to Thermotolerant Bacterial Aerosols. Chest, 69(2), pp. 294–296. https://doi.org/10.1378/chest.69.2_supplement.294)).

Risks/Side Effects of Steam Therapy

Although steam therapy is helpful for colds and sinus problems, care must be taken. Here are a few risks and side effects associated with steam inhalation:

Injury/Burns

Accidentally spilling the bowl of hot water into your lap is perhaps the biggest risk because it can result in severe burns to your body. So, be careful while placing the hot water bowl, container, or steamer. Consider placing the water at a distance from your body, in the middle of a table so if it spills it won’t hit you.

This is particularly a risk for children. Scalds that result can eventually result in hospitalization, surgery, and permanent disfigurement. During the COVID-19 lockdown, a number of children((D'Asta, F., Choong, J., Thomas, C., Adamson, J., Wilson, Y., Wilson, D., Moiemen, N., & Farroha, A. (2020). Paediatric burns epidemiology during COVID-19 pandemic and 'stay home' era. Burns : Journal of the International Society for Burn Injuries, 46(6), 1471–1472)) were hospitalized because of burn injuries caused by steam inhalation((Brewster, C. T., Choong, J., Thomas, C., Wilson, D., & Moiemen, N. (2020). Steam inhalation and paediatric burns during the COVID-19 pandemic. Lancet (London, England), 395(10238), 1690. https://doi.org/10.1016/S0140-6736(20)31144-2)).

  • Safety precaution – Keep the warm water away from children, pets, and other people.

Eye Damage

Long periods of steam inhalation affect the supply of blood to the eyes and cause swelling or redness through causing the capillaries (small blood vessels) to expand. Also, steam that is too hot can burn the eyes((DeRespinis, P. A. & Frohman, L. P. (1990). Microwave Popcorn — Ocular Injury Caused by Steam. New England Journal of Medicine, 323(17), p. 1212. https://doi.org/10.1056/nejm199010253231717))

  • Safety precaution – Do not allow the steam to reach the eyes directly by keeping them closed or wearing swimming goggles

Infection

Peforming steam inhalation for a long time can negatively affect your skin as it opens the pores, making it potentially more likely that certain bacterial strains can get in to clog them up((Brandwein, M., Steinberg, D., & Meshner, S. (2016). Microbial biofilms and the human skin microbiome. npj Biofilms and Microbiomes, 2(1). https://doi.org/10.1038/s41522-016-0004-z)), causing acne, redness, and itching.

Steam vaporizers can easily harbor bacteria and viruses, which could lead to infection. Always consult your pharmacist on best ways of usage and storage, and regularly clean out your vaporizer.

Death

Accidental fatality from steam inhalation is rare, but there have been at least two cases((Bhootra, B. L., & Kitinya, J. (2005). Deaths from accidental steam inhalation during traditional therapy. Journal of clinical forensic medicine, 12(4), 214–217. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.jcfm.2005.02.001)) of children who died after inhaling superheated steam in a confined location.

Frequently Asked Questions (FAQ)

Is Steam Therapy Good for Relieving a Cough?

Steam may help with nasal congestion that may be causing your cough by dripping down the back of your throad (upper airway cough syndrome/post-nasal drip). But if the nasal congestion is chronic, you may need to do nasal irrigation((Little, P., Stuart, B., Mullee, M., Thomas, T., Johnson, S., Leydon, G., Rabago, D., Richards-Hall, S., Williamson, I., Yao, G., Raftery, J., Zhu, S., & Moore, M. (2016). Effectiveness of steam inhalation and nasal irrigation for chronic or recurrent sinus symptoms in primary care: a pragmatic randomized controlled trial. Canadian Medical Association Journal, 188(13), pp. 940–949. https://doi.org/10.1503/cmaj.160362)) to flush the excess mucus out from the nasal cavity.

How Long Should You Steam for a Cough?

The National Institutes of Health recommend inhaling steam two to four times daily ((Vorvick, L. J. (2021). Stuffy or runny nose – adult. MedlinePlus. https://medlineplus.gov/ency/article/003049.htm)).

What Can I Put In My Steam for a Cough?

Because the warmth and moisture can temporarily soothe the mucous membranes lining the nose, many people find it soothing to breathe in (inhale) steam, while putting in products like chamomile((Adib-Hajbaghery, M., & Mousavi, S. N. (2017). The effects of chamomile extract on sleep quality among elderly people: A clinical trial. Complementary therapies in medicine, 35, 109–114. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.ctim.2017.09.010)), peppermint oil((Chakraborty, K., Chakravarti, A. R., & Bhattacharjee, S. (2022). Bioactive components of peppermint (Mentha piperita L.), their pharmacological and ameliorative potential and ethnomedicinal benefits: A review. Journal of Pharmacognosy and Phytochemistry, 11(1), 109-114)), menthol((Millqvist, E., Ternesten-Hasséus, E., & Bende, M. (2013). Inhalation of menthol reduces capsaicin cough sensitivity and influences inspiratory flows in chronic cough. Respiratory medicine, 107(3), 433-438)), and other herbs.

Does Steam Loosen Mucus?

Steam introduces warm, moist air into the lungs. The moisture may also help break up the mucus in your sinuses.

Is Steam With Salt Good for the Lungs?

The use of salt in steam therapy is called ‘halotherapy’ or salt therapy. Salt has a well-known antiseptic, antiinflammatory, and antibacterial effects, which has caused it to be considered as an alternative treatment for pulmonary problems and skin illnesses. 

Recent research suggests((Vladeva, E. P., & Ovcharova, L. P. (2018). Halotherapy – benefits and risks. Scripta Scientifica Salutis Publicae, 4, p. 22. https://doi.org/10.14748/sssp.v4i0.5010)) that positive results from the therapy could last for more than a year.

However, the American Lung Association((American Lung Association. (2016, June 9). Promising or Placebo? Halo Salt Therapy: Resurgence of a Salt Cave Spa Treatment. Each Breath. https://www.lung.org/blog/promising-placebo-salt-halotherapy)) suggests that, while there are a lot of theories on how the tiny salt particles being inhaled could kill off((Rashleigh, R., Smith, S. M., & Roberts, N. J. (2014). A review of halotherapy for chronic obstructive pulmonary disease. International journal of chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, 9, pp. 239–246. https://doi.org/10.2147/COPD.S57511)) microorganisms in the lungs to reduce inflammation((Rabbani, B., Makki, S. S., Najafizadeh, K., Vishteh, H. R., Shafaghi, S., Karimi, S., & Mahmoodian, S. (2013). Efficacy of Halotherapy for Improvement of Pulmonary function Tests and Quality of Life of Non-Cystic Fibrosis Bronchiectatic Patients. Tanaffos, 12(2), pp. 22–27. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4153239/)) and decreasing mucus, the scientific evidence is not enough.

However, Dr. Norman Edelman, Senior Scientific Advisor to the American Lung Association, suggests that it could be more than a placebo effect. Most people with obstructive lung disease, such as asthma or COPD, cough sputum (a thick mixture of saliva and mucus), and trying to bring it up can be difficult, frustrating, and upsetting. Dr. Edelman suggests that it's possible that salt therapy offers relief to these symptoms((American Lung Association. (2016, June 9). Promising or Placebo? Halo Salt Therapy: Resurgence of a Salt Cave Spa Treatment. Each Breath. https://www.lung.org/blog/promising-placebo-salt-halotherapyCitation)).Before trying halotherapy, talk to your doctor so they can advise you if it’s a good option based on your medical history.

Conclusion

Steam inhalation is a natural, economical, and effective method for providing relief to a variety of cough and cold symptoms. Moreover, several steam inhalers and humidifiers make it easier than ever. However, always consult your physician before doing steam therapy, especially if you are under any other medical treatment or on medication.

  1. Ophir, D., & Elad, Y. (1987). Effects of steam inhalation on nasal patency and nasal symptoms in patients with the common cold. American Journal of Otolaryngology, 8(3), pp. 149–153. https://doi.org/10.1016/s0196-0709(87)80037-6 []

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