To steam or not to steam in the face of COVID-19

If there is anything this pandemic has taught people, it is that life is short, and we are all going to die.

In “To Steam or Not to Steam: A Discussion on Steam Inhalation as a Health Remedy,” sponsored by Unilab Inc., a medical doctor said there are still no hard case studies to justify the age-old practice of tuob (inhaling steam) as a cure for Covid-19 and therefore they would not recommend it.

Pagtuob or steam inhalation is done by lowering one’s head about eight to 12 inches away from hot water and inhaling the steam slowly and deeply through the nose for at least two to five minutes.

Pulmonologist-biochemist Earl Louis Sempio said the practice “is recommended by some, frowned upon by some” in a country where over a million Filipinos are affected by acute respiratory infections and pneumonia remains among the leading causes of illness and death.

Dr. Sempio said because a person coughs or chokes on something, it doesn’t indicate he or she has COVID-19. The triggers for coughing or choking may include smoke, perfume or scents, noxious fumes, speech, exercise, cold or dry air, eating or humidity.

Better than inhaling steam is drinking water to prevent dehydration. Steam inhalation from water that has been boiled to 100 degrees Centigrade may help loosen phlegm and relieve the ailing person. Sempio cited the Philippine Institute of Traditional and Alternative Healthcare which stated that inhalation could be an effective remedy for colds and stuck-up nasal passages.

But, he said, steam inhalation could not kill the COVID-19 virus but instead cause potential harm. He added, “We cannot in good conscience endorse its use as a preventive or curative measure.”

The practice provides temporary relief, he said, but it is “not the answer for an ailment.” There is the risk of suffering from burn injuries or scalding as adverse side effects. “Hydration is better,” Sempio said. “The water doesn’t have to be boiling.”

Other people add organic oils like eucalyptus or menthol to the water they steam. As early as 1896, the doctor said this has been practiced. This mixing of oil and water can make it easier to breathe, but again “too much causes irritation and triggers inflammation,” he said. “Di porke na sinabing menthol, okay na. Basta sobra, nakakasama.”

He warned that steam inhalation among children using camphor oil could cause seizure, drowsiness, vomiting. He quoted the Department of Health which has debunked the myth of pagtuob (steam inhalation) using lemon, salt among other ingredients as just not true.

His recommended home remedies such as: hydration, deep breathing, getting plenty of sleep, exercising regularly, limiting coffee intake to two cups a day, not smoking. He even suggested to “retire Doctor Google and Mister Hyde” due to too much misinformation.

Sempio said, “Hear it first from your doctor. Don’t believe all that Google says. Ask for the right sources of information.” For the latter, he recommended the Philpulmo health and wellness website found at

He stressed that “a cough is not a disease. Steam inhalation is a remedy, not a cure. Anything in excess can be dangerous. If the nose is stuck up, inhaling steam may relieve the symptoms, but the underlying problem is still there. If it’s a viral infection, the immune system can fight it in a normally healthy person. Observe bed rest, hydration, proper nutrition.”

But in serious cases like diabetes, cancer and the like, it is best to consult with a doctor first. With the social distancing and quarantine measures being observed during this pandemic, doctors like Sempio practice “tele-medicine” or virtual consultations. He said, “If the patient is stable, we give supportive medicine. If a cough is past two weeks old, a work-up is a must to see if the case is potential tuberculosis.”

TB is among the leading causes of illnesses along with dengue, acute diarrhea, hypertension, pneumonia and acute respiratory infections.#


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