Does a humidifier, steam bath or steam vaporization from running water speed up the healing of the common cold (rhinovirus)? Most of us figure it helps clear congestion and the heat of the steam might inhibit or damage the virus. But is it true? Or is this just a good myth?
The assumption is that breathing in steam will clear the lungs and the sinuses. We figure the vapor will loosen the buildup of phlegm within the sinus, the throat and the lungs. This should help speed up the cold. Right?
Steam results not conclusive
The research, as published within the Cochrane Database System Review – inclusive of its strict requirements on study analysis, was accumulated by two independent scientists.
The research design included six different studies, which tested 394 human patients. The data collected included whether the patients experienced symptom relief alongside whether steam treatment sped up the healing of the cold among the patients.
The research did confirm that steam treatment increased symptom relief by 69% among the patients. But this occurred among three of the six studies. The others had mixed results, and one study – conducted in the U.S. – showed that steam treatment caused nasal resistance – worsening symptoms.
Some of the studies showed nose irritation and discomfort as side effects.
As far as viral shedding – the measure of the cold’s continuation and strength – the study that analyzed these found there was no difference between those being treated with steam and those not treated with steam.
In other words, there was little difference in terms of the course of the cold with steam treatment.
The researchers were pretty emphatic about their findings, but they noted that none of these were double-blinded studies. (But how can you created blindedness with a steam bath?) They stated:
“Steam inhalation has not shown any consistent benefits in the treatment of the common cold, hence is not recommended in the routine treatment of common cold symptoms until more double-blind, randomised trials with a standardised treatment modality are conducted.”
What about steam with essential oils?
Now we’re talking. What is missing from this review – and these studies – of course, is the use of herbal medicine within the steam. Steam provides a great delivery system for the application of herbal medicine into the lungs – specifically in the form of essential oils, which have proven to be antiseptic and anti-inflammatory.
After all, steam is simply an elemental state – its effects depend upon what’s in it. Or do we think that steam is steam – even if the steam is polluted?
In one study from London’s University College Medical School, 12 patients with chronic bronchitis were treated with steam with essential oil or a placebo steam treatment. This study was randomized and single-blinded. The patients receiving the essential oil steam had improved mucous clearance and reduced airways obstruction compared to the placebo group.
Another study – this from Russian doctors – found that essential oil of peppermint applied with steam helped reduce symptoms of pulmonary tuberculosis. Yet another study showed Eucalyptus essential oil helped prevent the spread of tuberculosis.
So it seems that while steam inhalation with plain steam might not have a tremendous effect upon the duration of our cold, there is good reason to believe that the addition of essential oils may indeed have an effect upon – and a reduction of symptoms of – lung infections that can often result as a cold progresses.
Singh M, Singh M. Heated, humidified air for the common cold. Cochrane Database Syst Rev. 2013 Jun 4;6:CD001728. doi: 10.1002/14651858.CD001728.pub5.
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Shkurupiĭ VA, Kazarinova NV, Ogirenko AP, Nikonov SD, Tkachev AV, Tkachenko KG. [Efficiency of the use of peppermint (Mentha piperita L) essential oil inhalations in the combined multi-drug therapy for pulmonary tuberculosis]. Probl
Case Adams is a California Naturopath and a Board Certified Alternative Medicine Practitioner with a PhD in Natural Health Sciences, and diplomas in Homeopathy, Aromatherapy, Bach Flower Remedies, Blood Chemistry, Clinical Nutritional Counseling and Colon Hydrotherapy. He has authored 26 books on natural healing strategies.