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Steam inhalation is a traditional and popular way to soothe, open, and comfort dry and irritated airways and reduce congestion. Inhaling warm water vapor thins mucus and reduces inflammation in the lungs, throat, and nasal passages. Inhaling pure water vapor is therapeutic on its own, but adding botanicals can boost the effects of steam inhalation with their anti-inflammatory, mucus thinning, and immune-boosting properties.  

This article covers two types of steam inhalation: The traditional herbal face steam, which is good for adults and older children, and shower steam inhalation, which can be adapted for people of all ages. 

A woman holds a towel over hear head as she inhales steam from a bowel of hot water.

Steam inhalation has some safety concerns, especially for young children. The biggest risk is burns. Also, ingesting essential oils is dangerous. Some essential oils are too strong to be used for babies and toddlers. Kids should always be closely supervised during steam inhalation.   

Traditional Herbal Face Steam 

Traditional herbal face steams are simple and effective home remedies for reducing congestion and instilling a feeling of relaxation. The following are the instructions that I give to my patients:

  1. Select herbs and place them into a heat-safe bowl.
  2. Heat water to steaming, but not boiling, and pour over the herbs.
  3. Lean forward over the bowl until your face is 8-12 inches from the water, close your eyes, and inhale the water vapor for 2-5 minutes for kids or 10-15 minutes for adults. Don’t use facial steam for longer than is comfortable. Even a quick 30 seconds is beneficial. 
  4. Drape a towel over your head and shoulders to create a tent over the bowl to intensify the vapor inhalation (optional).

Many herbs will work in herbal steam for congestion. The blend listed below focuses on easy-to-find herbs that are soothing, immune-stimulating, and germ-fighting. You can use dried or fresh herbs for this type of steam inhalation.  

Steam Inhalation Herbs For Congestion

  • 3 tbsp thyme – fights germs and helps move mucus out of the lungs
  • 1 tbsp basil – fights germs and helps move mucus out of the lungs and nose 
  • 2 tbsp chamomile – soothes irritated tissues and calms the mind
  • 1 tbsp peppermint – opens the airways, reduces spasm, and fights germs
  • 1 tbsp lavender – fights germs, calms the mind, and reduces spasm

Safety Considerations For Traditional Steam Inhalation

  • Select a heat-safe bowl with a wide base to avoid tipping.
  • Do not lean on the bowl. Tired kids may be tempted to do this so it’s important to watch them closely. 
  • Keep eyes closed and directed away from steam.
  • Choose a quiet spot away from pets, rough-housing, and other distractions. 
  • Stop the steam right away if discomfort of any kind occurs.
  • Use your judgment as a parent to decide if your child is old enough to sit quietly. As a general rule, I would avoid this type of treatment for kids under 8, but some professionals recommend 12.
  • Stay present and alert. I sit next to my daughter and rub her back.

Essential Oil Shower Steam

To perform a shower steam inhalation, simply run a hot shower with the windows and doors of your bathroom closed. The room will fill with steam, and you and your kiddo can sit quietly and inhale the soothing moist air for as long as desired. Essential oils may be added but aren’t necessary.

In our home we use shower steams more often than traditional herbal steams. I find traditional herbal face steams more effective at reducing congestion and soothing irritation. However, the following practical benefits to using a shower steam vs a facial steam are what lead me to use them more often. 

  1. Shower steam inhalation is much easier. This is a big deal for parents at any time. It is an extra big deal if you are also sick and are experiencing fatigue. You can inhale steam from pure water or you can add essential oils. 
  2. Steam inhalations are safer for babies and small children. Run the shower until the bathroom is filled with steam and then sit with them and breathe the warm moist air for several minutes. No need to worry about little faces getting too close to hot water!

Essential Oils To Add To Shower Steams

There are many essential oils that you can add to a shower to boost the medicinal value of steam inhalation. Chances are if you’re in my community you already have some favorites! In our home, we like lavender, eucalyptus, peppermint, rosemary, thyme, fir, and vetiver. We add 2-5 drops of essential oil to the shower floor and let the vapor carry it into the air. 

For babies and toddlers, I skip the stronger medicinal oils and use lavender or pure water vapor without essential oils. Lavender is calming, soothing, antimicrobial, and most importantly safe. Kids over two can use most (but not all) of the same essential oils for inhalation that adults can. If kids find any of the oils uncomfortably strong, discontinue using them right away.  Always err on the side of gentleness when it comes to essential oils!

Safety Considerations For Shower Steams

  • Never leave babies or small children unattended.
  • Monitor babies and small children for signs of difficulty inhaling the warm, moist air.
  • Use age-appropriate essential oils. Some oils are too strong for babies and young children.
  • Use high-quality essential oils. Adulterated essential oils and synthetic fragrance oils can make it more difficult to breathe. I prefer to purchase my essential oils from Henry’s Homestead


Steam inhalation can help reduce the symptoms of coughs and congestion. Herbs or essential oils can be added for their medicinal benefits. 

When dealing with hot water, burns and scalds are a concern. Take appropriate safety precautions.

Though steam inhalations are great for improving symptoms, they don’t shorten the duration of coughs and colds.

For more information about how to treat coughs, see this article: Natural Treatment for Coughs – Dr. Green Mom. To learn more about steam inhalations and RSV, see: RSV (Respiratory Syncytial Virus) – Treatment & Prevention – Dr. Green Mom.


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Dr. Green Mom

Dr. Mayer is a naturopathic medical doctor and an expert in nutrition and wellness as it relates to pediatrics and families. Her passion for prevention of disease as cure fueled her desire to immerse herself into specializing in adult onset chronic conditions, as well as childhood chronic illness.

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