Inhaling steam has been used as a home remedy for colds and nasal congestion (blocked nose). However, scientific studies have found that it has few proven benefits and can cause serious harm like burn injuries.
On this page, you can find the following information:
- What is steam inhalation?
- Is there any evidence that steam inhalation works?
- Why is steam inhalation no longer recommended?
- Are there safer alternatives to relieve congestion?
- How do I clear my baby's blocked nose?
What is steam inhalation?
Steam inhalation involves breathing in steam from heated water. Many people do this to soothe and open their nasal passages when they have a cold or sinus infection.
Is there any evidence that steam inhalation works?
Steam inhalation has long been considered a beneficial home remedy to treat nose and chest congestion, but there is no research evidence to suggest it actually works. Social media and home-made tutorials have played a role in misleading people into thinking that breathing in steam will unblock airways and kill a virus.
Therefore, there is no evidence that steam inhalation is effective for the treatment or prevention of COVID-19. In fact it may do more harm than good.
Why is steam inhalation no longer recommended?
Steam inhalation is a hazard – particularly for children. It can cause burns and scalds and ultimately lead to hospital admission, surgery, and life-long disfigurement.
To inhale steam, people mostly use bowls with hot or boiling water and some use commercially available steam inhalers. This use of hot, or boiling water is a huge risk, particularly to children. Children, due to their unpredictable movements, curiosity, and poor awareness of danger, are at significant risk of burn injuries.
Breathing in very hot water can damage the lining of your lungs. It can be particularly bad if you have asthma as it can worsen your asthma symptoms.
Some people add eucalyptus oil to the water, thinking that the scented steam will clear their blocked nose. This is dangerous as there have been reports of eucalyptus inhalation causing epileptic seizures (fits). The same can happen if other essential oils are inhaled. Read more about essential oils.
Are there safer alternatives to relieve congestion?
If you find the use of steam helpful, a safer alternative is the use of steam inhalation in the bathroom. Shut the door and then turn on the hot shower and/or hot taps. Sit outside the shower as you need the water to be very hot.
Another alternative to relieve a blocked nose is the use of saline (salt water) nasal preparations. Read more about homemade sinus rinse.
Some people find using vapour rubs soothing and helps relieve nose and chest congestion. Vapour rubs are ointments that contain essential oils such as menthol, camphor and eucalyptus in measured amounts. They are usually applied to your skin, on your throat, chest or back. Rub gently and leave clothes loose to allow vapours to be inhaled easily. Note that vapour rubs are not recommended for use in children younger than 2 years old.
How do I clear my baby's blocked nose?
It is common for babies aged under 6 months to have a blocked nose (commonly called 'snuffles'). It is usually due to normal mucous that collects in the nose, which is difficult for the baby to clear. No treatment is required if the baby is otherwise happy and feeding well.
Here are some safe things to try if feeding becomes difficult:
- Give your baby a warm bath. If they can sit up they will enjoy some playtime and distraction and warm water can help loosen mucous and clear congestion.
- Try placing a bowl of warm water in the room where the baby sleeps. This raises the humidity which may help to loosen thick mucous.
- Try sitting in a steamy atmosphere with your baby before a feed. For example, run the hot shower in the bathroom and shut the door. Sit in the room, but not in the shower, with your baby for five minutes before feeding.
- Try giving smaller but more frequent feeds.
- Run a humidifier in your baby's room while they sleep.
- Salt water (saline) drops or sprays may be useful if the above measures do not help. Saline drops thin the mucus and so make it easier for the baby to clear the mucus from the nose. (Saline seems to work better than just plain water.) You can buy saline drops from a pharmacist who can also advise on how to use them. Only use the drops just before feeds, and only if the nose is blocked. If saline is used too often, the skin around the nose may become a little sore.
- Heated, humidified air for the common cold Cochrane Database Syst Rev. 2017; 2017CD001728
- Steam inhalation and paediatric burns during the COVID-19 pandemic The Lancet, May 2020
- Matthew T, Kamath V, Kumar RS, et al. Eucalyptus oil inhalation–induced seizure – a novel, underrecognized, preventable cause of acute symptomatic seizure Epilepsia Open 2017;2(3):350-354.
- Blocked nose in babies PatientInfo UK, 2017