Can Steam Inhalers Help With Allergy Symptoms?

Last updated: October 2022

Personal steam inhalers push out warm, humidified air, often through a mask-like device. This mask is held near your face so that you can directly inhale the steam through your nose to open up the nasal passages.

Allergic rhinitis is nasal congestion due to swelling of the nasal passages. Steam inhalation is a home remedy that can relieve swelling and soothe nasal irritation.1

What is allergic rhinitis?

Rhinitis refers to swelling of the nasal passages and can occur for multiple reasons. Allergic rhinitis is nasal swelling that is caused by your immune system trying to defend your body by reacting to allergens. Certain immune cells, called mast cells, release a substance named histamine. Histamine causes:1

  • Nasal swelling
  • Runny nose
  • Sneezing

You may have heard of drugs called antihistamines, like Benadryl. They prevent these symptoms by blocking histamine.

Using a steam inhaler

There are many treatments for allergy symptoms, including drugs and allergy shots (immunotherapy). However, these can be expensive and have side effects. Steam inhalation:1

  • Is cheap
  • Does not contain drugs
  • Can be done at home

You can use steam inhalation alone or in combination with other treatments. When you combine inhaling steam with taking certain drugs, it can enhance the effects of the drug. For example, studies have shown that inhaling steam before using nasal spray can make the spray more effective.1

What are the benefits of inhaling steam for people with allergies?

One great benefit of steam inhalation is that warm air decreases airway resistance in your nose. Airway resistance is how much work it takes to pull air into your nose. Warm air is easier to inhale. Warm air also can warm the nasal passages themselves. Warm air stops the mast cells from releasing histamine, preventing nasal stuffiness and runny nose.1

Inhaling wet air also adds moisture to the nasal passages. This helps thin out any thick mucus in your nose, helping it drain to relieve congestion. If you use steam inhalers during a cold, the steam may even be able to kill off the virus in your nose. Steam inhalation can also improve other allergy symptoms, such as:1

  • Sneezing
  • Headaches
  • Eye pain
  • Post-nasal drip

Potential hazards of steam and hot water

While steam inhalation can be very beneficial, it can be risky if not used right. Hot, steaming water can scald you if it spills. Also, if your personal steam device does not keep the temperature of the steam safe, you could burn your face and nasal passages.2

A common way to inhale steam without a personal device is inhaling the steam from a boiling pot of water. However, this method must be used with great caution around kids. Children's skin is more delicate, and they are more likely to spill hot water. These burns may even be serious enough to require admission to the hospital.2

Modern personal steam devices are less likely to cause burns. However, these devices are not completely risk-free. Look for devices that keep a consistent temperature, ideally as low as possible. You should be able to find this information on the maker's website or on the packaging of each device.2

Safety with steam inhalation

If you are not ready to buy a personal steam inhaler but want to see the benefits of steam inhalation, there are ways to be safe. You can place your face over a bowl of steaming water. Make sure that the bowl is on a flat surface where it cannot slide or be knocked over. Another great low-risk way to inhale steam is to sit in the bathroom while you run a hot shower. If you have children with allergies, they can sit with you in the bathroom so long as they do not touch the hot water.2

Do not underestimate the damage steam and hot water can do. A small mistake could lead to a serious injury to you or a loved one. If you have more questions about steam inhalation and personal steam inhalation devices, speak to your doctor.

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