This handheld device has some pros and cons, so we tapped experts for everything to know before you buy one yourself.
Over-the-counter medications are all that some people with seasonal allergies need to deal with their symptoms, but that’s not the case across the board. The usual oral antihistamines, nasal sprays and rinses, and eye drops may bring a bit of relief to those with severe allergies, but still leave them feeling pretty miserable.
Other types of respiratory illnesses—like sinus infections, colds, Covid-19, and some types of the flu—may also come with symptoms similar to allergies, like congestion, a runny nose, a sore throat, or a cough. Whatever the reason, if you find yourself stuffy or sniffly, and have looked for a treatment other than (or in addition to) medicine, you may have come across personal steam inhalers.
What’s a Personal Steam Inhaler (vs. Personal Humidifier)?
As relative newcomers to the home healthcare products market, these gadgets currently go by a few different names, including “personal humidifiers.” To help avoid any confusion, we’re talking her about handheld devices that deliver a light steam mist that the user inhales through a mask that covers their nose and mouth. Essentially, it’s the same idea as breathing in steamy vapors while taking a shower, in the hopes that it will make it easier for you to breathe.
But do personal steam inhalers actually work, and are they worth the purchase? And if they do, are they really any better than similar (free) home remedies? We spoke with several ear, nose, and throat (ENT) doctors to find out if personal humidifiers are the best way to soothe congestion, irritated sinuses, and other respiratory issues.
How to Use a Personal Steam Inhaler
To use a personal steam inhaler, fill the water reservoir, and power on the device. This will heat the water, producing steam. “The steam then passes through a mask or mouthpiece, which can be held up to your nose and mouth, allowing the warm mist to be inhaled,” says Shuba Iyengar, MD, allergist and cofounder chief medical officer at Allermi.
The Benefits of Using a Personal Steam Inhaler
How, exactly, is a personal steam inhaler supposed to help you feel better? “The concept behind steam inhalers centers around the warm, moist air,” explains Peter Manes, MD, rhinologist specializing in sinus and nasal disorders at Yale Medicine. “It’s thought to loosen the mucus in the nose and lungs.” They’re most useful for relieving symptoms of congestion “from dry air, allergies, or the common cold,” says Jacqueline Jones, MD, a board-certified ear, nose, and throat specialist (otolaryngologist) at Park Ave ENT and author of Medical Parenting.
Personal steam inhalers help lubricate the pink lining of our noses and throats called "mucosa," says Michael Lerner, MD, a laryngologist and ENT at Yale Medicine. “This lining of our noses and throats sometimes produces excessive mucus in response to certain environmental insults—such as viral or bacterial infections, allergies, or inhaled irritants relating to smoking or vaping—in order to form a barrier of protection,” he explains.
This excessive mucus then builds up in the throat and can lead to excessive throat clearing, coughing, and feeling congested, and “steam inhalers can help loosen or hydrate the thick adherent mucus which can provide significant relief,” Dr. Lerner continues. “Additionally, vocal cords vibrate best when well-lubricated, so many professional or occupational voice users—like singers, teachers, or fitness instructors—find that personal steam inhalers help optimize their voice quality and function.”
The primary function of personal steam inhalers is to reintroduce moisture into the respiratory tract. “Dryness can lead to sinus and nasal congestion, hoarseness, and increased retention of mucus in the throat and lung,” says Omid Mehdizadeh, MD, an otolaryngologist and laryngologist at Providence Saint John’s Health Center in Santa Monica, California. “Our body has little arms in the inner lining called ‘cilia’ which help move mucus out. It needs high water content in order to provide effective flow via cilia's action.”
But it’s important to keep in mind that personal steam inhalers aren’t a miracle treatment or cure for respiratory issues, says Chris Thompson, MD, an ear, nose, and throat specialist at Providence Mission Hospital in Orange County, California. While using one can lead to some symptom relief for some people, he notes that “the evidence supporting it as treatment for upper respiratory tract infections and allergies is lacking.”
How does using a personal steam inhaler affect your skin?
Given that using a personal steam inhaler involves holding a typically plastic mask up to your nose and mouth in order to breathe in steam, you may be wondering what impact—if any—it can have on the delicate skin on your face.
Ultimately, it comes down to your skin type and any underlying issues, but broadly speaking, there are some potential benefits and downsides to using one of these handheld devices. Here are a few examples of each, courtesy of Jones, Iyengar, Lerner, and Mehdizadeh:
Possible beneficial effects:
Moisturizing skin: The steam may help hydrate the skin on the face.
Increasing blood flow: The heat from the steam inhaler can increase blood flow to the skin, helping to improve skin tone and texture.
Opening pores: The steam can help open or unclog pores, allowing for better absorption of skincare products.
Possible negative effects:
Dry Skin: Overuse of a steam inhaler can lead to drying out of the skin, which can cause redness, flaking, and other problems.
Irritation and infection: If it’s not cleaned properly and/or overused, it could irritate the skin, which could eventually become infected.
Flare-ups: It may aggravate eczema or other skin conditions.
Burns: If the steam is too hot, or the device is placed too close to the face, it can cause burns or other damage.
Breakouts: If the skin is not properly cleansed before or after using a steam inhaler, it can lead to clogged pores and breakouts. Also, over-humidification and heat may lead to increased oil production, which can lead to breakouts.
How to Keep Your Personal Steam Inhaler Clean
Though personal steam inhalers are generally safe, it’s extremely important that you keep them clean. “Residual moisture or water trapped inside a personal steamer can lead to mold buildup, which can constitute yet another inhaled allergen or irritant for patients,” Dr. Lerner says. Also, if a steam inhaler is not cleaned properly, “bacteria can grow in the water reservoir, potentially leading to infection,” Dr. Iyengar notes.
Follow the manufacturer’s instructions for cleaning the personal steam inhaler that came with the device. If you’re unable to find those, Dr. Lerner recommends making your own cleaner of equal parts water and white vinegar, which he says is effective at eliminating mold. “Along the same lines, it would be wise to make sure the steamer is completely dry or allowed to air dry after cleaning,” he says.
If you experience any adverse effects after using a steam inhaler, Dr. Iyengar says that you should stop using it immediately and consult your physician.
Is a Personal Steam Inhaler Better Than DIY Options?
People have been attempting to relieve respiratory symptoms by inhaling steam coming off of warm or hot water for centuries, through both a range of medical devices, as well as home remedies. One common method involves leaning over a large mixing bowl filled with hot water, covering your head and the bowl with a towel, and inhaling the steam. But how does this technique stack up against modern products?
According to Dr. Manes, using a personal steam inhaler isn’t any better or more effective than DIY remedies like breathing in steam from a bowl of hot water, “but certainly may be more convenient.” Along the same lines, Jones says that the device “helps to deliver the steam more effectively to the nasal cavity,” whereas it can be difficult to control the temperature and amount of steam when inhaling the vapors from a bowl of hot water.
And, while the potential for accidental burns may be greater with this DIY method, it’s also simple, cheap, and easier to clean than personal steam inhalers. In addition to the bowl and towel setup, Dr. Mehdizadeh says that taking a warm bath or hot (but not too hot) shower can also help ease respiratory symptoms.
Are They Worth It? It’s Best to Consult Your Doctor
In short, it depends on your needs, your commitment to washing the device, and, above all, whether you experience any symptom relief after using one. Personal steam inhalers are one of those products that some people swear by, but others don’t get much benefit from.
Plus, as Dr. Iyengar points out, they may not be suitable for everyone—especially people with environmental allergies and asthma. “For example, people with allergies or asthma may find that steam inhalation worsens their symptoms,” she explains.
Citing a lack of evidence, Dr. Thompson says that he doesn’t encourage his patients to use personal steam inhalers. “In general, we recommend saline irrigations or [rinsing] of the nose to help thin thick mucus secretions,” he notes.
Dr. Manes, meanwhile, appreciates the lack of side effects associated with using a personal steam inhaler properly, but emphasizes the need to have realistic expectations when using the device. “It does not cure the disease process,” he says, “but may improve symptoms related to the underlying condition.”
If you’re interested in trying a personal steam inhaler, it’s best to talk to your doctor about it first—especially if you have any underlying respiratory conditions, like asthma or allergies. And finally, as Dr. Iyengar points out, “it's important to remember that personal steam inhalers should never be used as a substitute for medical treatment.”
Tips for Using a Personal Steam Inhaler
Never used a personal steam inhaler before? Here are a few pointers from Dr. Iyengar, Dr. Mehdizadeh, and Dr. Manes for using one in the safest and most effective way possible:
Use bottled or distilled water: Water that is high in mineral content can leave residue.
Control the temperature: Use the device on a temperature setting that makes the water hot enough to produce warm steam, but not so hot that it could burn your skin and/or irritate your eyes.
Avoid using essential oils or other aromatic substances: If a person has environmental allergies, they may be allergic to the natural ingredients in the fragrance, which can exacerbate their allergy symptoms, or potentially even cause an allergy attack.
Use the inhaler in a safe and comfortable position: Sit comfortably and securely while using your inhaler.
Breathe slowly: Inhale slowly and deeply through your nose, hold the steam in your nasal passages for a few seconds, then breathe out through your nose.
Clean the device after each use: Follow the manufacturer's instructions for cleaning and storing the device.
Use it regularly: It’s not a one-and-done treatment. Continue to use the inhaler, as appropriate, no more than twice daily, throughout your illness or allergy season.
But also, use it sparingly: Overusing a steam inhaler can lead to drying out of the nasal passages, which can worsen respiratory symptoms. Don’t use it more than once or twice daily to prevent your nasal passages from drying out, and, in turn, make your symptoms worse. Consult a doctor if your symptoms don’t improve.
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