A dangerous way to cure a winter cold

Published: 23 January 2014 at 13:18

Steam inhalation products to blame for burns injuries – Anglia Ruskin experts

Using steam inhalation products to cure a winter cold can do more harm than good, according to doctors at one of the UK’s leading burns centres.

The St Andrew’s Anglia Ruskin (StAAR) Research Unit – a partnership between Anglia Ruskin University and the St Andrew’s Centre for Plastic Surgery and Burns based at Mid Essex Hospitals Trust – carried out a review of burns patients over a 10-year period and discovered that steam inhalation was to blame for a number of injuries, most commonly burnt laps amongst men.

Steam inhalation using a decongestant is commonly used as a home remedy for upper respiratory tract infections and can also be used cosmetically to open pores.  The researchers looked at the reasons for steam inhalation use, the mechanism of injury, who recommended its use, any additives to the steam, the patient’s age, depth and scale of burn, and length of hospital stay.

Many of the patients had balanced bowls of water on their laps while sitting on an uneven surface, such as a sofa, rather than leaning over a bowl placed on a hard surface.  The lap was typically the area resulting in the most severe burns, with more superficial burns caused by ‘run off’ of boiling water as the patient stood up. 

Accidents were also caused by “tenting”, which involves extending a towel over the head and under the bowl of water placed on the lap.  Any sudden movements to the head can then cause the bowl to tip.  Other common injuries included facial burns caused by the face coming into contact with the water or as a result of splashes of boiling water.

The researchers found that inhalation was being used to treat colds in 93% of the cases, while in 7% of cases it was being used for cosmetic reasons.  Advice from family members and GPs was the most common reason for choosing inhalation as a remedy.  The average age of a burns patient was 20, and the worst case involved a 14-day stay in hospital.

The frequency of these injuries is also increasing.  Between 2005-2009, St Andrew’s Centre for Plastic Surgery and Burns treated nine patients for steam inhalation injuries, but since 2010 52 patients have been admitted.

Quentin Frew, Visiting Clinical Fellow at Anglia Ruskin University, said:

“Although steam inhalation is a widespread practice, there is little evidence of any beneficial effects.  However, as our research shows, there are potentially serious long-term side effects.
“Patients are suffering up to 18% burns resulting from mishandling of boiling water, unsuitable containers, using uneven or unsafe surfaces and using additives, such as decongestants, which can intensify the burn by sticking to the affected area.
“There is some incredibly bad advice available on the internet, including inhaling steam directly from a boiling kettle or straight from a saucepan on top of a cooker.
“It is clear that better education is necessary in order to reduce the number of burns patients being admitted to A&E this winter.  If people are determined to use steam inhalation as a treatment, then steam from a hot shower is by far the safest option.”