Does Humidity Really Alleviate Croup?

Hot steam or cold mist no longer believed helpful for croup

Child with a cough holding a bear.
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When your child gets croup, you are likely to be searching for something that can alleviate it as quickly as possible, perhaps to avoid a trip to the doctor or even the emergency room. An old home remedy suggests that steam may work.

But, will putting your child in the shower or in a steamy bathroom with a hot shower running actually soothe croup cough? Unfortunately, the answer is no—and research does not support this practice either.

What Is Croup?

Croup is an inflammation of the larynx—usually from a viral infection—that is commonly seen in kids. Adults can get it, too, but they are more likely to call it laryngitis. Croup is seen in babies and toddlers from the ages of six months to three years.

With croup, your child may have sudden symptoms of a cough. More specifically, croup causes a loud, barking cough that sounds a bit like a sea lion. Your child may also have trouble breathing and release a high-pitched noise while breathing in, known as stridor.

Symptoms often start at night, get better during the day, and get worse again at night. Croup often gets better without treatment, with time being the best remedy.

Humidity and Cold Mist

Healthcare providers were taught for years that humidity would alleviate croup. Supposedly humidity worked so well, it was actually said that you could literally diagnose croup if humidity quelled the coughing.

But, while there is plenty of research into the use of humidity to treat croup in the emergency department, no studies exist to actually support using a hot and steamy shower at home. In fact, in every study, humidity didn't seem to help at all.

In olden days, people would put on a hot kettle for steam or use a hot steam vaporizer. This welcomed the risk of scalding or burns. Thus cold mist systems were developed.

Now, home treatment recommendations say that humidified air has no evidence of benefit, even though many parents still believe in it. According to a definitive Cochrane review, a review in the Canadian Medical Association Journal (CMAJ) notes, "Though traditionally used for decades in the acute care setting, humidified air (mist) has now been definitively shown to be ineffective in croup and should not be given."

A Word From Verywell

The good news is that most cases of croup get better after three to five days. You can keep your child more comfortable by holding them in an upright position to make breathing easier. Crying can make the symptoms worse, so try keeping your child calm. Give them fluids and encourage them to sleep.

Don't give your child over-the-counter cold medications as those won't help croup. They are also not recommended in any case for children under the age of two. You and your child might want to rest as much as you can during the day as symptoms tend to be better then and are likely to come back during the night.

It is important to note that croup that doesn't get better within a few of days could get dangerously worse. So, be sure to take kids to the doctor if their barking cough doesn't go away in a day or two. And call 911 for anyone with severe shortness of breath, no matter the cause.

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