Steam inhalation is a home remedy typically used to relieve symptoms of sinusitis, pollen allergies, and other ear, nose, and throat issues. A common benefit cited by medical professionals is that it reduces congestion, as it breaks up mucus in the airways. Some people combine steam inhalation with aromatherapy to provide natural relief without the use of any medications. Often, humidifiers are recommended for people with health problems caused by dry air in the home. When a humidifier alone does not provide enough relief, steam inhalation might help alleviate some symptoms.
A common method of inhaling steam is to boil a few cups of water and then pour the steaming water into a large bowl. Next, a towel can be placed over the sufferer's head, as he leans over the bowl of water, breathing deeply through his nose for approximately 15 minutes. As an alternative to using a bowl and a towel, many retail stores and online merchants sell electric steam inhalers with masks.
Many people find that aromatherapy provides more relief than steam alone. To alleviate allergy and sinus symptoms using steam inhalation and aromatherapy, an essential oil may be added to the steaming water. Some oils recommended for this purpose include eucalyptus, peppermint, and rosemary. These are generally used sparingly, with only two to three drops being used at a time. The oils can be used individually or as a combination of scents.
Scientific studies have produced mixed results on the effectiveness of steam inhalation for treating the common cold. Two research studies, performed five years apart, yielded different outcomes. One of them showed a reduction in cold symptoms after the participants inhaled heated air for 20 minutes. The other study found no differences in cold symptoms between those who received the heated steam treatment and those who did not.
Since very hot water is used, experts caution that there is a burn risk associated with inhaling steam. For this reason, it is typically not recommended as a treatment for young children. Many doctors also advise against steam inhalation for pregnant women or people with heart conditions. Also, some professionals approve it for people with asthma, while others feel it should be avoided. A physician should be consulted to address a patient's specific questions or concerns.