- Steam therapy is a common non-pharmacologic treatment to help clear mucus and open up the nasal passages, throat, and lungs.
- Warm steam inhalation before bedtime may also help relax and increase deep sleep and improve quality for people with mild sleep issues and anxiety.
- Thyme, mint, eucalyptus, basil, and rosemary can all add to the benefits of herbal steam therapy.
- This article was medically reviewed by Tania Elliott, MD, who specializes in infectious diseases related to allergies and immunology for internal medicine at NYU Langone Health.
- Visit Insider’s Health Reference library for more advice.
Steam inhalation, also known as steam therapy, has been around since ancient times. The Egyptians were the first known users of inhalation therapy and often included dry plants and minerals in their preparations.
Today, steam therapy is still a common non-pharmacologic treatment to help clear mucus and open up the nasal passages, throat, and lungs.
There are several ways to inhale steam, which is created by boiling water with various herbs and then breathing in the steam it releases. Learn more about steam inhalation and which herbs are best for a variety of ailments.
Steam inhalation techniques
The most common method of steam inhalation is a do-it-yourself treatment. Lynn Gershan, MD, a pediatrician and assistant professor of pediatrics at the University of Minnesota Medical School who is certified in medical herbalism, shares her 6-step DIY process:
- Put two quarts of water in a pot.
- Heat the water until it’s not quite boiling, just steamy.
- Put two handfuls of herbs in the water, and let steep for 10 minutes.
- Create a tent with a towel over your head to inhale the steam.
- Inhale the steam for no more than 10 minutes.
- Keep the decoction, or extract, of water and herbs on your counter for a few hours after you’re finished. At that point, the herbs have become more concentrated, and the chemicals they release into the air from their essential oils can be left to dissipate in the air, where they can continue to help refresh you and your environment. You can toss the liquid after a few hours.
Gershan does not recommend this type of steam inhalation for children 12 and under. “Kids don’t like it, and the risks outweigh the benefits,” she says.
Several studies have shown that children may get scalded and burned using steam therapy, often by accidentally spilling boiling water on themselves or inhaling steam that can burn the delicate lining of their nose, mouth, and airways.
Additional steam therapy methods include inhaling steam from baths, showers, and steam rooms. In recent years, portable steam inhalers, also known as vaporizers, have become popular.
To use a vaporizer, fill the chamber to the fill line with water (filtered water is a good choice), plug it in, and turn it on. The water is heated slowly until it boils, and the steam that is created goes through the hole in the vaporizer, where it can be inhaled.
Some vaporizers have special chambers for essential oils, or you can add the oil to the water. Jones suggests starting with two drops of essential oils and stopping after you're able to smell them in the steam. After steam therapy, she also recommends using a sterile nasal saline solution to rinse out the loosened secretions.
Make sure to clean portable steam inhalers after each use. Otherwise, there's a chance they might get moldy, which can aggravate noses, throats, and lungs. If not cleaned properly they can also harbor bacteria and viruses which could lead to infection.
Illnesses and conditions steam inhalation treats
"I recommend steam inhalation for my patients who have blocked nasal passages and nasal congestion. The flu, seasonal colds, sinus infections, and allergies are typically the trigger," says Jay Woody, MD, emergency room physician, and the chief medical officer of Intuitive Health.
In addition to helping clear the nose and throat, steam therapy is sometimes used to help with chest congestion.
For example, in a 2018 study on steam therapy with a small group of people with chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), some participants experienced decreased respiratory rate and easier breathing.
However, more studies are needed to determine the effects of steam therapy on people with lung issues. Gershan also warns that in people with respiratory challenges, steam therapy should not take the place of prescribed medications. Some people may be sensitive to the herbals, and it could trigger airway problems.
Steam therapy may also help people sleep. A 2019 study showed that warm steam inhalation before bedtime helped participants relax and increased deep sleep, which led to improved sleep quality in adult men with mild sleep issues and anxiety.
Herbs most beneficial for steam inhalation:
Many herbs can help increase the beneficial effects of steam therapy. Here are five popular choices:
- Thyme: This herb is an expectorant (helps loosen mucus) and has antibacterial properties. "It's my favorite essential oil for steam therapy because it has great benefits, and it's not an irritant like some stronger oils can be," says Jones.
- Mint: Gershan likes to use mint leaves in steam therapy decoctions. "It has a nice scent, and it helps loosen mucus and is also antibacterial," she says, but cautions against using peppermint essential oil for steam therapy, as it is very strong. Spearmint oil used in vaporizers may be a better choice.
- Eucalyptus: Remember when your Mom rubbed Vicks VapoRub on your chest as a kid? That smell you remember is eucalyptus. It's great for loosening mucus, but use it in small doses, as it can be overpowering.
- Basil: This is another favorite of Gershan's. It's a decongestant and is naturally antiseptic and antibacterial.
- Rosemary: This herb has antiviral, anti-inflammatory, and antimicrobial properties, says Gershan.
The best part of using these herbs? They are readily available locally, or even in your own indoor or outdoor herb garden.
Gershan says to add only the leaves of the plants, as some other parts are not safe to use. And, if you're trying a DIY method, you can even mix some of the herbs together.
How do you decide which herbs to include? While you may love the smell of basil, eucalyptus might turn you off. Choose an herb or mixture of herbs with a scent you enjoy. After all, if you don't like it, you won't want to use it.
Herbal steam therapy is a long-time remedy that continues to offer health benefits. Like most homeopathic treatments, steam inhalation works for some and not for others. If you're congested or have trouble sleeping, it's certainly worth a try.
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