Herbal Steam Inhalation

Photo of Sharol Tilgner
Photo of steam coming off a cup of tea.

An Inexpensive Form of Hydrotherapy

Steam inhalations are a powerful and inexpensive form of hydrotherapy. Breathing in warm steam from a shower or a boiling pot of water can help to open up your airways. Adding herbs to a steam inhalation make an already helpful tool, an even greater ally in decreasing respiratory congestion which accompanies colds or sinus infections. Herbal steam inhalations are easy to use. At one time it was a process that most families used in their home during the winter months. There are companies that now sell inhalation apparati that can be used with herbal sachets that get dropped into water. Some of them work quite well, but you can create your own inhalation with common kitchen utensils and essential oils or spices from your kitchen cabinet. Just make sure the herbs you use are fresh and not from three years ago. The fresher, the better for effectiveness.

Actions of A Steam Inhalation

Steam inhalations can open up a congested nose and closed off sinuses, as well as open an eustachian tube to an ear to allow drainage. Additionally it allows delivery of antimicrobial herbs to infected respiratory tract tissues.  A steam inhalation gets herbs directly to the tissues that are struggling.  Adding an herb that contains menthol such as peppermint will open up the sinuses and allow another more antimicrobial herb like Thyme or Oregano to get into a sinus area that had previously been closed.

Warning

It is safest to use the whole herb in a steam inhalation. However, herbs are often used as a quick and easy method. Remember that essential oils are strong and you need to use them sparingly. The same goes for the herbs that contain essential oils. Using too much can burn sensitive respiratory tract mucous membranes.

The Quick Method

I will share my quick method for making a steam inhalation using water and essential oils.  A slower method involves making an infusion (type of tea) first. If you prefer to use dry herbs, simply make an infusion and use it as the steam inhalation.

 

Implements:

  • 4-6 quart pot
  • Stove
  • Table
  • Towel or blanket
  • Pot holder
  • Dry or fresh herbs
  • Essential oil for the quick method (dry of fresh herbs are safer for a noice to use)

Types of Herbs To Use

Any herb with volatile, antimicrobial essential oils, or herb capable of opening the nasal passages can be used in a steam inhalation for respiratory congestion. Usually an herb that contains menthol is used as menthol is key to opening up the nose and sinuses. The opening of the passageway via a steam inhalation is due to both the steam of the water and the menthol in the herb. Two herbs with menthol that are easy to find and inexpensive are peppermint and wintergreen. The menthol in these herbs is what gives it that refreshing brisk coolness to our mouth with ingestion or when applied on our skin.  In addition to herbs with menthol, I also use a strong antimicrobial/antifungal herb to be added to the water such as thyme, or oregano.

Peppermint, oregano and thyme are generally easy to procure if you don’t already have them growing outside your door.

 

Directions

  • Pour 2-4 quarts of water into the pot.
  • Bring the water to a boil.
  • Take the water off the heat.
  • Put the herbs in the pot and put the lid back on the pot and let it sit for a few minutes.
  • While waiting for a few minutes, prepare an area at a table where the head can be positioned above the pot without getting burnt by the pot.
  • Place the hot pot on the table, using a potholder to protect the table.
  • Drape a blanket over the head and pot, creating a vapor cocoon.
  • Sit over the pot with the head directly over the pot of tea & inside the blanket cocoon.
  • Breathe in the vapors. Keep your eyes closed so they don't get irritated.

If the vapor cocoon gets too hot or too intense:

  • Remove head from under the blanket.
  • Rest a moment.
  • Return when ready.

Directions For The Quick Method With Essential Oils

Essential oils should not be used by novices as they can damage their respiratory tract.

  • Pour 2-4 quarts of water into the pot.
  • Bring the water to a boil.
  • Take the water off the heat.
  • Prepare an area at a table where the head can be positioned above the pot without getting burnt by the pot.
  • Place the hot pot on the table, using a potholder to protect the table.
  • Drape a blanket over the head and pot, creating a vapor cocoon.
  • Sit over the pot with the head directly over the pot of hot water & inside the blanket cocoon.
  • Add 1-2 drops of essential oil to the pot. (Most essential oil bottles have a dropper top.)
  • Breathe in the vapors. Keep your eyes closed so they don't get irritated.
  •   If the vapor cocoon gets too hot or too intense:

Remove head from under the blanket.

Rest a moment.

Return when ready.

The essential oil will disappear as vapor very quickly so you will need to add 1-2 drops more of each essential oil when the oil vapor is gone. Do not add too much essential oil. Add sparingly.

 

Warning

Adding more essential oil than suggested can cause irritation of the lungs and eyes. It has been known for a person to put the essential oil in before getting inside the blanket cocoon. By the time they are inside the blanket cocoon the essential oil has vaporized off. The full strength  of the essential oil only lasts for 20 seconds and then disappears. If the person does not know the essential oil is short lived,  they may think they did not put enough in. Now they add 4 drops of each oil and it is over-powering. I make sure when giving this procedure to a patient that I have made sure they will not use more than I tell them and they will follow my directions. If I am concerned about them following directions, I alternatively give them teas to use rather than essential oils. The tea simply necessitates the extra step of making an infusion from the tea. The infused tea is then put on the trevit or hot pad, and you have a continuous supply of vapors coming off the pot until the tea runs out of essential oils. It is not as intense as straight essential oil. Teas are also better for children.

Steam Inhaltion Units are also available to purchase. Make sure you do not add too much essential oil to them. Follow their directions.

For Children

For my child patients whose parents want to use a vapor inhalation, I give them the following instructions. I have them make a tent house over a card table. Make it as small as possible, but with enough room for themselves and the child. They then get inside it with the pot of tea and make a game out of inhaling the vapors. If they make the tent too big, the vapors will disappear into the large space and not be as available.

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