Breathe Better With Steam Inhalation

With a history of use that dates back at least 3,500 years—the first historical mention of this therapy was found on an ancient Egyptian papyrus scroll—steam inhalation is a long-standing home remedy for colds and sinus issues.

When you’re sick, sessions of inhaling steam from a vaporizer device or a bowl of hot water may help loosen up mucus in the lungs and sinuses, help with congestion, ease a sore throat, and improve voice hoarseness.

While steam inhililation is not recommended for children and clinical evidence for some of these benefits is lacking, it is a method worth considering. This article breaks down what this treatment can do, as well as how to do it safely.

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Medicinal Properties of Steam Inhalation

Primarily, the medicinal effect of this at-home therapy is to ease the symptoms of illnesses that cause congestion, runny nose, and sore throat, such as:

  • The common cold (viral infection of the upper respiratory tract—the nose and throat)
  • Sinus infection (sinusitis,  inflammation of the lining of the spaces in your face and head)
  • Croup (infection of the upper airway, causing a barking cough)
  • Bronchiolitis (infection of the respiratory tract common in infants and young children)
  • Bronchitis (inflammation in the lining of the bronchial tubes that carry air to and from your lungs)
  • Allergies (condition in which your immune system reacts to a foreign substance, causing itchy eyes and skin, runny nose, and nasal congestion)

Steam Inhalation and Sleep

There’s significant evidence that steam inhalation before bed can help with sleep. One study of adult men found this practice to ease bedtime anxiety, shorten the time it takes to fall asleep (sleep latency), and improve the quality of rest.

Steam Inhalation Benefits for Cold and Sinus

Many sufferers of upper respiratory infections, such as the common cold and sinusitis, have found steam inhalation helpful as a part of treatment. Generally speaking, therapy for these conditions centers on resting and drinking fluids while managing symptoms.

While steam inhalation doesn’t kill viruses or bacteria, it may help as your body fights off the infection. While more research is needed on some of the purported benefits of this therapy, some studies—alongside anecdotal evidence—have found it to have clinical value.

Five key benefits of steam inhalation for cold and sinus issues are:  

  1. As a sleep aid: Ensuring that you get enough sleep is essential for combatting colds and sinus infections. Your body needs rest as it fights the illness. Steam inhalation at night can be instrumental in getting you relaxed and ready for bed.
  2. Treating voice hoarseness: Your voice gets hoarse and haggard when your vocal cords (larynx) are irritated. This can happen due to respiratory illness, exposure to smoke, too much singing, or loud talking. The steam enters these structures, rehydrating them and improving their mobility and function.
  3. Easing sore throat: The clinical evidence is mixed on whether steam inhalation actually relieves sore throat. However, it’s a long-standing technique to ease the pain and swelling caused by the inflammation of tissues in the throat.
  4. Management of congestion: Inhaling steam may also help with congestion as it can loosen mucus in the lungs, throat, and sinuses (especially prevalent in sinus infections). While results are mixed in terms of efficacy, getting rid of that mucus helps ease pressure and makes breathing easier.   
  5. Rehydration of nasal passages: Dry and irritated sinuses, especially nasal passages, can also accompany common colds and other respiratory infections. In addition to discomfort, they can lead to bloody noses. Sessions of inhalation bring moisture to these areas, which helps relieve symptoms.

In the past, studies found that hot steam can kill cold-causing viruses in the respiratory system, as high temperatures can have that effect on them. However, an extensive review of the literature found no reliable evidence of this.

Safety Concerns

There are few adverse events reported with steam inhalation and no severe side effects to speak of. However, you can unintentionally burn yourself. Most often, this occurs when people don’t use devices made for the task, and spill boiling water onto their laps or other parts of their bodies.

Because children and infants are prone to these kinds of burns, it’s currently advised that parents and caregivers not try it. Also, extra care needs to be taken when working with boiling water in the kitchen to avoid burning yourself. Safety tips include:

  • Ensuring the mug or bowl you use is on a steady surface
  • Keeping eyes closed as you inhale to prevent direct contact
  • Being mindful of young children or pets

Using store-bought inhalers reduces the risk of burn injury, as the water is in an enclosed chamber. However, make sure to clean any filters and replace them when necessary as dirty parts can house bacteria or viruses.

Beware of Burns

Burns can be very damaging to skin, ranging in severity from those that just affect the outer layer of skin (type 1), like sunburns, to those causing deeper damage (type 3).

Primarily causing pain and swelling, burns require emergency medical help when:

  • The burn is severe and/or large.
  • You have a fever.
  • There’s excessive and continued swelling.
  • The affected area emits puss or a foul-smelling discharge.
  • A blister with yellow or green fluid forms.
  • The skin has redness.
  • The burn isn’t healing after 10–14 days.   

Instructions

Though steam inhalation can be done without the use of special equipment, there are many specialized inhalers available on the market. When using these, make sure to read the instructions carefully to prevent contact with boiling water.

Whether you choose to use a device or go it on your own, here’s a quick breakdown of what you do:

  • Find a vessel, such as a large bowl, or even a large mug, if you don’t have a vaporizer.
  • Boil water with a kettle or microwave. Vaporizers have heating elements for the water.
  • Fill the basin with boiling water, place a towel on your head, and set a timer.
  • Position your head about 8–12 inches above the water. Keep your eyes closed.
  • Position the towel to create an enclosed space.
  • Inhale the steam with slow, deep breaths for at least two to five minutes, refilling with hot water every two to three minutes.
  • Limit the duration of the individual session to 10–15 minutes.
  • Repeat sessions two to three times a day, as need.

Anecdotally, many report that adding drops of Vick’s VapoSteam or tea tree oil to the boiling water may help with decongestion and other symptoms. For less fuss, you can try inhaling directly from a large mug and dispensing with a towel. See what works for you.

Summary

Steam inhalation is a popular at-home treatment for symptoms of colds, sinus infections, and other respiratory issues. Sessions of steam inhalation have been shown to help with sleep and relieve voice hoarseness. Though evidence of how well it works is mixed, it may help ease sore throat, loosen mucus, and rehydrate the sinuses.

Steam inhalation vaporizers may be used, or you can boil water and inhale it from a bowl or large mug while wearing a towel over your head. Be careful, however, as there is a risk of burns, and steam inhalation is not recommended for kids or babies.

A Word From Verywell

While some of the benefits of steam inhalation may be lacking in clinical evidence, it’s worth considering as part of a broader treatment plan (and using proper precautions).

Finding ways to manage your symptoms can help make recovery from a cold, sinus infection, or other respiratory issues much easier. As your body fights off the infection—and as you work to ease your symptoms—focus on rest and hydration, while keeping an eye out for warning signs of more serious conditions.

Frequently Asked Questions

  • Can you use essential oils during steam inhalation?

    Adding essential oils, such as eucalyptus, tea tree oil, and lavender, to the boiling water may help with symptoms. Some research has even shown some of these to ease inflammation and have an antibacterial effect on bacterial sinus infections. More research is needed, however, and there's a lot that scientists don't know.

  • How long should you do steam inhalation?

    It’s generally recommended to steam for at least two to five minutes. However, you don’t want to go over 10–15 minutes during one treatment. That said, you can try up to three sessions a day, as needed.

  • Do you have to have a steam inhalation machine?

    While steam inhalation vaporizers make the process convenient, you don’t need special equipment for this treatment. You’ll want to have a towel on hand, a good, sturdy bowl, a timer, and a kettle or microwave to boil the water.

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Verywell Health uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
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