There’s no proof steam inhalation cures Covid-19

2 February 2021
What was claimed

Inhaling steam can cure Covid-19 by killing the virus that causes it when it is in the sinuses, before it reaches the lungs.

Our verdict

There’s no evidence that this is the case.

We’ve been asked to check a chain message spreading on WhatsApp and Facebook, that makes a number of claims about Covid-19 and steam inhalation.

The message claims that inhaling steam through the mouth and nose kills the virus while it is still in the sinuses before it “reaches your lungs”. It advises people to steam multiple times a day, depending on how much contact they have with other people.

Versions of this rumour have been spreading since the start of the pandemic, but there’s no evidence to back them up, and you could risk injuring yourself.

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Steam as a treatment for Covid-19 is unproven

Some people promoting this theory point to a very small Italian study in which ten subjects with Covid-19 infections inhaled steam for around an hour for at least four days.

The authors suggested steaming “might help easing the consequences of SARS-CoV-2 infection” in a mild or early infection, but also admitted that the “observation is only preliminary, it has obvious limitations and the beneficial effects we observed need confirmation in a controlled trial”.

This is in no way enough evidence to warrant encouraging people to inhale steam to prevent or treat Covid-19, especially if it means they don’t adhere as strictly to proven methods of prevention, for example increased hand washing, wearing face coverings and social distancing.

Inhaling steam is a traditional remedy used by some to treat colds, but there’s no evidence it works for that either. 

A Cochrane review (a system in the UK where all the published evidence for and against a treatment is reviewed) into the practice found that there was no conclusive evidence that it eased cold symptoms or reduced the amount of rhinovirus (which causes colds) people shed. The virus causing the common cold is different to the one that causes Covid-19, but they both cause respiratory illness, which this ‘cure’ is claimed to alleviate.

Treating Covid-19 with heat

Multiple trials of treatments for Covid-19 are currently running around the world, but none has yet been proven as a consistently effective cure (although some, such as corticosteroids have been used with some success).

Although heat can destroy the virus in the context of disinfecting a surface, there is no evidence to suggest it will work the same way inside the human body. Heating up the sinuses via steam won’t guarantee the virus, if present, will also be heated up to those temperatures, without also damaging the body’s cells first.

The World Health Organization has warned against various claims that using heat, including hot baths, sunny weather, humid climates and hand dryers, can treat Covid-19. 

Inhaling steam may do more harm than good

A literature review about the use of inhaling steam at home said the practice had caused and would risk significant scalding injuries, echoed by several medical organisations.

Doctors at the Burns Centre at Birmingham Children’s Hospital said in May 2020 that they had seen an increase in burns in children directly related to steam inhalation, usually from accidental spillage of boiling water.

Colin Brewster, a Specialist Registrar in Plastic and Burns Surgery there, said: “We’d urge families and those offering advice to discourage inhaling steam as a remedy for the treatment of illnesses such as the common cold, respiratory infections and, particularly, COVID-19.”

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