Monday, October 28, 2013

Does inhaling steam cause injury and / or death?

Does inhaling steam cause injury and / or death?

Steam inhalation is commonly used to treat the upper respiratory tract infections, including sinusitis in children. The inhalation facilitates efficient heat transfer to the upper tract. However, the remedy may have serious consequences. We have reviewed the available literature exploring the consequences. Here are the key findings and conclusions of four studies:
B.l. Bhootra and J. Kitinya. (2005). Deaths from accidental steam inhalation during traditional therapy. Journal of Clinical Forensic Medicine.
  • Death due to steam inhalation is rare. The report highlighted that two children succumbed to superheated steam inhalation in a closed room. The post-mortem examination revealed that congestion of lungs and epiglottis and petechial hemorrhages in the hearts, lungs and brains led to hypoxia (inadequate supply of oxygen) and thereafter death.
  • The respiratory tract mucosa is sensitive to superheated steam vapors.
  • Inhaling steam in a closed space cause deadly hypoxia within minutes.

David J.A. Orr, Dylan Murray, Siun M. Murphy, and Susan Smith. (2004). Burns caused by steam inhalation for respiratory tract infections in children. British Medical Journal.

The researchers observed a group of children who received treatment for scalds at Dublin’s Children Hospital during July 1-December 31, 2002. The age varied from nine months to ten years. The scalds affected 3-6% area of the body surface. A direct contact between the face and hot water or steam burned the skin. Some children were given steam inhalation therapy on the doctor’s recommendation.
The authors concluded that the popular steam inhalation method that involves holding the head under a towel wrapped around a container containing very hot water is a risky process. Chances of getting burns are high, especially in case of young patients.  They recommended that a safer method should be used for the inhalation.

Balakrishnan C, Gordon DM, Prasad JK, and Tijunelis AD. (1996). Burns and inhalation injury caused by steam. Burns. Elsevier.


They concluded that steam inhalation might injure the respiratory tract in rare cases. However, the inhalation often causes acute pulmonary insufficiency. The injured alveolar epithelium increases pulmonary edema, pulmonary capillary permeability and gas exchange abnormalities.

Akhavani MA and Baker RHJ. (2005). Steam inhalation treatment for children. British Journal of General Practice.


The authors attended some children with scalds in January 2005. The children were less than five years old. They got burns because they kicked steaming hot water container, spilling the water on the chests and feet. The burnt area varied from one to three percent of the body surface area. Steam inhalation was a prescription by the doctor.
The authors also cited a Welsh research in the article. The research states that the incidences of scalds in children have gone up. The increase is ascribed to spilling hot beverage and steam inhalation. The authors advised against inhalation because evidences supporting the therapeutic value of inhalation are not enough.
Be careful while inhaling steam!

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