Our nasal passages are the first line of defense when we get sick, and they often bear the brunt of our respiratory symptoms.

The common cold, still the most common infection in humans, triggers inflammation inside the membranes of the nose and causes thick mucus to form — this is also known as congestion. Allergies and other respiratory illnesses also cause inflammation in this area of the body.

A home remedy for congestion is steam inhalation, where you breathe in water vapor. The warm, moist air helps thin out the mucus, so it can drain more easily. It also helps soothe inflamed and irritated nasal passageways, which allows you to breathe more easily.

Though it does not cure the infection, and the results of clinical studies are mixed, steam inhalation continues to be a popular treatment, because it may provide relief from symptoms.

In general, especially in the winter months, humidity is important, because it can help keep nasal passages from drying out.

The traditional method of steam inhalation involves draping a towel around your head over a pot of hot water. However, both the potential safety issues and preparatory effort have caused people to look for other alternatives, such as humidifiers.

These devices introduce moisture into the air by releasing water vapor or steam. A type of portable humidifier known as a steam vaporizer is especially helpful for soothing respiratory congestion. Just add water to this device, and it will heat and properly cool the water for comfortable inhalation of the vapors.

This article provides an overview of one particular steam inhaler on the market: Vicks Portable Steam Inhaler.

This wellness product, by well-known brand Vicks, is a lightweight and portable device that vaporizes water. It can be used with or without Vicks VapoSteam and Vicks VapoPads to temporarily relieve nasal and sinus congestion.

Let’s start with some basic benefits and drawbacks to this device, based on the product description and customer reviews.

This product is best for people with mild symptoms who need a quick and easy way to soothe their congestion with moisture. Those who want visible steam, or warmer air for a longer period of use, may want to look at other options.

The unit should be rinsed thoroughly before you use it for the first time. Start by twisting the top of the unit off of the base and lifting off the top. Then, fill the base with hot (not boiling) tap water to the fill line.

If you would like to use one of the included VapoPads, open a packet and add it to the water. As an alternative, you can use 1 teaspoon of Vicks VapoSteam.

Replace the top and breath in the vapors. The unit runs up to 15 minutes per treatment.

It’s important to know how to safely use your steam inhaler. The most important safety aspect is filling the machine with the hot water. Make sure you do not fill over the fill line, because hot water might leak out.

Generally, steam vaporizers are not recommended for children due to the element of heat in the machine, which could burn if spilled.

It’s very important to wash and dry your steam inhaler after each use to make sure it’s disinfected. Bacteria and mold can grow inside the machine — and inhaled the next time you use it — if not washed properly. This unit is top shelf dishwasher safe for easy cleaning.

If you’re storing your steam inhaler for a longer period, make sure all the water is removed and the unit is completely dry. Be sure to give it a wash before using it again.

Vicks Portable Steam Inhaler reviews are mixed on Amazon, averaging 3.6 stars out of 5 with more than 1,600 ratings. Those unhappy with the product expected steam rather than vapor to come out of the machine, and many were not aware that they needed to add hot water. Some complain that the water did not stay warm.

One customer says, because the water only stayed hot for a few minutes, they felt they weren’t really able to loosen up their congestion before having to refill it.

Those who like the product praise its ease of use, enjoying the fact that it didn’t need to be plugged in and could be used “on the go”.

Though this product is by far the most portable, there are options that you can plug in or use with batteries if you want a more robust option. These options will heat the water, keep it heated, and produce steam.

One example of this is the Mabis Personal Steam Inhaler and Vaporizer, which has a control feature, so you can adjust how much steam you want.

On the other hand, The Vanker Handheld Steam Inhaler releases a cool mist — rather than a hot steam — which may be better for children.

Those who want a more direct flow of steam into their nasal passages can find options that come with a face mask that fits over the nose.

The bottom line is that most people who want to introduce humidity into their nasal passages want a little steam, rather than just the vapor released with this product.

Many people are purchasing devices like this in order to avoid the inconvenience of having to heat up water. This is the source of most of the disappointment in the customer reviews and why it might not work for everyone.

However, it’s a very affordable option, costing around $14 on Amazon. If portability and vaporization of water — along with Vicks scent products — are all you’re after, this could be a great product for you.