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Steam inhalation won’t directly treat an illness, but it can help to loosen mucus and decrease irritation in your sinuses.

Steam inhalation is one of the most widely used home remedies to soothe and open the nasal passages and get relief from the symptoms of a cold or sinus infection.

Also called steam therapy, it involves the inhalation of water vapor. The warm, moist air is thought to work by loosening the mucus in the nasal passages, throat, and lungs. This may relieve symptoms of inflamed, swollen blood vessels in your nasal passages.

While steam inhalation won’t cure an infection, like a cold or the flu, it may help make you feel a lot better while your body fights it off. But as with any home remedy, it’s important to learn best practices so you don’t hurt yourself in the process.

A stuffy nose is triggered by inflammation in the blood vessels of the sinuses. The blood vessels can become irritated because of an acute upper respiratory infection, such as a cold or a sinus infection.

The main benefit of breathing in moist, warm steam is that may help ease feelings of irritation and swollen blood vessels in the nasal passages. The moisture may also help thin the mucus in your sinuses, which allows them to empty more easily. This can allow your breathing to return to normal, at least for a short period of time.

Steam inhalation may provide some temporary relief from the symptoms of:

While steam inhalation can provide subjective relief from the symptoms of a cold and other upper respiratory infections, it won’t actually make your infection go away any faster.

Steam inhalation doesn’t actually kill the virus responsible for the infection. At best, steam inhalation might make you feel a little better as your body fights your cold.

One review of six clinical trials evaluating steam therapy in adults with the common cold had mixed results. Some participants had symptom relief, but others didn’t. Additionally, some participants experienced discomfort inside the nose from the steam inhalation.

Another recent clinical trial looked at the use of steam inhalation in treating chronic sinus symptoms. The study, however, didn’t find that steam inhalation was beneficial for the majority of sinus symptoms, except for headache.

Although the results of clinical studies have been mixed, anecdotal evidence claims steam inhalation helps alleviate:

  • headache
  • congested (stuffy) nose
  • throat irritation
  • breathing problems caused by airway congestion
  • dry or irritated nasal passages
  • cough

You’ll need the following materials:

  • a large bowl
  • water
  • a pot or kettle and a stove or microwave for heating up water
  • towel

Here’s the process:

  1. Heat up the water to boiling.
  2. Carefully pour the hot water into the bowl.
  3. Drape the towel over the back of your head.
  4. Turn on a timer.
  5. Shut your eyes and slowly lower your head toward the hot water until you’re about 8 to 12 inches away from the water. Be extremely careful to avoid making direct contact with the water.
  6. Inhale slowly and deeply through your nose for at least two to five minutes.

Don’t steam longer than 10 to 15 minutes for each session. However, you can repeat steam inhalation two or three times per day if you’re still having symptoms.

You can also purchase an electric steam inhaler (also called a vaporizer) online or at a drugstore. For these, you just need to add water to the level indicated and plug in the system. The vaporizer uses electricity to make steam that cools before exiting the machine. Some vaporizers come with a built-in mask that fits around your mouth and nose.

Steam vaporizers can get dirty with germs quickly, so you’ll need to wash it often to prevent bacterial and fungal growth. Wash the bucket and filter system every few days during use, too.

Steam inhalation is considered a safe home remedy if done right, but it’s very possible to hurt yourself unintentionally if you’re not careful.

There’s a risk of scalding yourself if you make contact with the hot water. The biggest risk is accidentally knocking over the bowl of hot water into your lap, which can cause severe burns in sensitive areas.

To avoid burns:

  • Make sure the bowl of hot water is on a level, sturdy surface and can’t be knocked over.
  • Don’t shake or lean on the bowl.
  • Avoid allowing the steam to make contact with your eyes. Your eyes should be closed and directed away from the steam.
  • Keep the bowl of hot water out of reach of children or pets.

Steam inhalation isn’t advised for children due to the risk of burns. In fact, one study found that most people who received burns from steam inhalation therapy were children. However, you can have your child sit in a steamy bathroom while you run hot water in the shower for a similar effect.

Steam inhalation systems that you can purchase online or in stores are generally safer, as the water is enclosed and can’t easily spill on your skin.

Steam inhalation may be an effective way to clear up your nasal and respiratory passages when you’re sick with a cold or the flu, but it won’t actually cure your infection. Your body’s immune system will still do the bulk of the work to get rid of the virus causing your symptoms.

Like many home remedies, always proceed with a grain of salt. What works for one person might not work for you.

If you experience any discomfort, pain, or irritation from using steam therapy, stop using it and look for other ways to alleviate your symptoms.

If you’re feeling under the weather for more than a week or have severe symptoms, make an appointment to see your doctor.