Aromatic Steams in Viral Times

by Lindsey Feldpausch

The regularly scheduled cold and flu season is here. While we have been living through a worldwide pandemic, for what seems like an eternity, the year’s typical bugs aren’t likely to let us off the hook. And COVID-19 sure isn’t either.

The stakes are higher this year. Masking up, taking standard safety precautions, and limiting close contact with others will help us slow viral spreading. But feeling the first tickle in your throat or a bit of that run down kinda sag is gonna be a bit terrifying this time around.

If you find yourself coming down with something, getting tested would be the next best step to protect yourself and those around you. While you await your results, and follow the advice of your doctor, we can utilize aromatic plants to aid our body’s respiratory system in the process of protecting us.

Decongesting with Aromatic Steams

One of the most easy and effective at home tools we can instigate with aromatics is a hot steam. Steams can be done with the use of herbs or essential oils, other than that all you need is a bowl, towel and some boiling water.

The equitable nature of the equation, hot water plus plants, has been around for a long time, just ask the romans. The results we seek in doing a steam during a respiratory illness is the discernable decongesting activity of the process!

Let’s gain a bit of perspective on why congestion occurs in an illness. The reason our sinuses become congested, when we are fighting an infection, is due to inflammation and an increase in mucus production. Both of which are innate responses from our immune system to stem the infection from spreading.

Mucus, while admittedly a bit icky, is actually an amazing conglomerate of chemical weaponry that can literally stop microbes in their tracks.

The inhibition of effective mucus production occurs mainly when you don’t have enough water intake to produce a healthy flow of mucus or your body’s temperature has increased causing the mucus to dry out (again due to lack of water). This highlights the need for adequate water intake in acute illness. Keep yourself hydrated.

Doing a steam will bring water to the respiratory passages inflamed, and congested mucous membranes. By thinning out thickened mucus, we help it to do its work reducing the viral load, instead of lazing about and clogging the very passages we require for oxygen transport.

By raising the temperature of water in a steam we increase the speed of evaporation. The hot water molecules will travel, alongside the volatile constituents, to be breathed into our respiratory systems.

The aromatic constituents that free themselves and travel to our respiratory system are those that are light enough to disengage from their gravitational bonds and move into the nasal passages.

Plants produce particles that are able to travel through space for their own use. A few of the reasons they produce volatile aromatic molecules, is to communicate with neighboring plants, lure beneficial insects and birds to them, to deter feeding upon their parts, amongst others.

Interestingly, if you think about it there are some parallels to humans here. We may use aromatic plants to communicate with other humans through natural scents, potentially drawing them near, or similarly we may use bug sprays to inhibit mosquitos and other insects from feeding on us. I digress.

The aromatic constituents in the hot water may increase the potential for virucidal activity of the steam. But let us stop for a moment and make sure we are on the same page. Steaming is not a viral cure all, especially for a virulent virus like COVID-19, while the antimicrobial nature of volatile oils may possibly transmit to the mucous membranes they come directly in contact with, it is not going to kill off the whole of any virus in your body.

But that doesn’t mean they do not have great benefits.

Medicinally, aromatic compounds in plants, even if we can’t smell what we are inhaling, can be utilized by humans to garner effects such as bronchial dilation, inflammation reduction, microbial inhibition and much more.

There are many aromatic and pungent plants that can be used in an herbal steam. Some of my favorites are listed below, and luckily a few you may already have on hand in your spice cabinet.

Thyme (Thymus vulgaris)
Sage (Salvia officinalis)
Oregano (Origanum vulgare)
Anise (Pimpinella anisum)
Wild Bergamot (Monarda fistulosa)
Rosemary (Salvia rosmarinus)
Peppermint (Mentha piperita)

Any of the essential oils of the plants listed above can be used, just the same as the whole plant. Here is how you do it.

The Process

  1. Choose your herb or essential oil to steam with. If you are using an herb, measure out a ½ cup or so of dried plant matter (make sure the dried herb still smells as it should, if not it may be too old to be effective). If you are using essential oils, you will want to use about 5 drops.
  2. Place the herb or drops of oil in the bottom of a medium sized bowl.
  3. Pour a couple cups of boiling water on top of the herb or oils.
  4. Place the bowl on a table with a chair. Position your face directly over the bowl, and cover your head with a towel. Seal the towel around you as much as possible to hold the steam in. Stay in as long as you can, or until the steam dissipates.

As you will have noted, this process calls for working directly with boiling water and steam, both of which can burn you, so proceed with caution.

You can repeat this process a few times throughout the day. You will notice an immediate reduction in congestion, clearing your airways for the important stuff like oxygen.

Disclaimer: As COVID is a virus of such a serious nature, please make sure you are taking the appropriate steps to ensure your safety if you become sick throughout this cold and flu season. While steams are one tool, out of many we can utilize in any viral infection, you must not rely solely on this or any other at home aid.