Steam therapy, or steam inhalation, is the method of introducing warm moist air into the lungs via the nose and throat for therapeutic benefit. It involves the inhalation of water vapour. This practice is not new. The use of steam bath dates back to centuries, often to the Romans and the Greeks who used steam as a means to heal and draw out impurities from the body. Hippocrates, the father of medicine, also documented the benefits of steam as a means of maintaining daily health.
Materials required for steam therapy include a large bowl, water, a pot or kettle, a stove or microwave for heating up water and towel. The key to the strong health benefits of steam is its high humidity.
Steam therapy may be carried out the traditional way – that is, pour a few cups of steaming water into a large bowl, put a towel over the head to form a “tent”, lean over with the face 15-20cm from the steam, and inhale. Other methods include hot showers with or without essential oils, and personal inhalers.
Pharmacological actions and medicinal uses
Mechanism of actions of steam include moisturising dry, irritated nasal and throat passages, making them more comfortable; alleviating soreness and inflammation of the throat; liquefying mucous secretions, resulting in clearer secretions that are easier to expel by coughing or blowing the nose; relaxing throat muscles, thereby reducing the cough reflex; and dilating blood vessels, encouraging better blood flow and overall circulation.
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 the nasal passages. These actions can allow breathing to return to normal, at least, for a short period of time.
A study showed that children who used steam to help relieve congestion recovered more quickly from respiratory infections than children who did not use steam therapy. One well-designed clinical trial of 62 patients concluded steam inhalation resulted in alleviation of cold symptoms and improved nasal patency (how open the nasal passages are) compared to the placebo-treated group.
Steam therapy is also beneficial in achieving pain relief, healthier skin, stress relief, weight loss and cardiovascular health. While steam inhalation won’t cure an infection, like a cold or the flu, it may help make one feel a lot better, while the body fights off the infection.
Steam inhalation may provide some temporary relief from the symptoms of the common cold, the flu (influenza), sinus infections (infectious sinusitis) and nasal allergies. Moist heat in steam showers has been documented to relieve conditions like bronchial asthma, bronchitis, catarrh, coughs, hoarseness and expectoration (coughing up phlegm).
Steam has shown benefits in relieving respiratory symptoms related to viral infections. This service can be combined with the healing properties of essential oils and various clays as well as mud packs in order to facilitate healing.
A steam room can be dangerous, usually due to the very real risk of dehydration. This is worse if alcohol is consumed just before using the steam room.
There is also risk of scalding or severe burns as a result of contact with the hot water.
Steam therapy is 100 per cent natural. It may come at little or no cost as a home remedy. However, construction of portable steam tents may not only provide income for the fabricator, but a more convenient way of accessing the service both in facilities and at home.
Pharm. Ngozika Okoye
MSc, MPH, FPCPharm (Nigeria Natural Medicine Development Agency)