If you get Covid, one of the most common recommendations you would get – from friends and probably from your family doctor too – is to do “Steam Inhalation” twice a day. There were even media reports of a “mass steam inhalation” facility outside a police station in Mangalore. But is there any scientific basis behind this suggestion? Does it really help? Does the hot steam “Kill” the Covid virus?
Does it help?
Firstly, neither World Health Organization (WHO) nor U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recommend this treatment for preventing coronavirus. Closer to home, here is what Dr Gagandeep Kang, virologist and professor of microbiology at Christian Medical College, Vellore has to say “Steaming helps relieve congestion in the nose and upper respiratory tract. But it does nothing whatsoever to prevent Covid or treat the virus or affect the progression of the disease.”
Forget about Covid - even in cases of common cold, steaming can only relieve symptoms. It does not clear the infection any faster or kill the virus.
Dr Kang adds, “Additionally, any respiratory or breathing distress itself cannot be relieved by steaming. That is caused by the disease, while congestion and cold-like stuffy nose are only symptoms that can be alleviated through steam inhalation.”
Can it hurt?
Unfortunately, Yes. If you do steam inhalation without congestion, it could potentially worsen other respiratory conditions like asthma. Not only is steam inhalation is of no help to treat Covid – but it can do harm too if not correctly done.
Dr Satyanarayana Mysore, HOD, pulmonology, Manipal Hospitals, who has been treating Covid cases since March, said steam inhalation for a week is “very unscientific”. “We have seen patients coming in with respiratory symptoms not due to Covid, but because of the scalding of airways. Such cases have a history of steam inhalation. Unscientific steam inhalation is probably going to burn the airways, causing problems much worse than Covid,” Dr Mysore said.
And it’s not just the airways that are at risk. A study published by the Spanish Pediatrics Association notes: "It is apparent that regardless of how SIT [Steam Inhalation Therapy] is applied, it carries a risk of burn injury. The usual technique of covering the head with a towel over a pan filled with hot water is dangerous due to the steam, the hot liquid, or even potential contact with the container. "
The American Burn Association explains, "Hot water will burn the skin at temperatures much lower than boiling point (212°F/100°C). In fact, it only takes 3 seconds of exposure to 140°F/60°C water to cause a burn serious enough to require surgery!"
If you want to steam because you have congestion or a stuffy nose and want symptomatic relief, please do not add any essential oils to the boiling water. Dr Thomas Mathew, professor and HOD, neurology, St John’s Medical College Hospital, said essential oil-induced seizures (EOIS) are a big concern. “People must avoid adding essential oils, eucalyptus oil and pain balm to water while inhaling steam. These stimulate the brain and cause seizures. We see at least two such cases every month,” he said.
Now here’s the kicker. The Government of India, Ministry of Health and Family Welfare, in their latest guidelines 28th April 2021, says asymptomatic or mildly symptomatic patients of Covid “may take steam inhalation twice a day”!! I assume they are recommending it for symptomatic relief for your congestion and cold-like stuffy nose - and not for treatment of Covid.
Author of “I am NOT a Doctor”