Integrative physician Woodson Merrell, MD, answers your pressing health questions.
Q: Can steam really ease congestion?
A: Yes, it's one of the best things for it, especially when used with essential oils like eucalyptus, menthol, or camphor. Steam keeps sinus membranes moist and helps phlegm soften and drain. When an infection takes hold, mucus production increases and becomes difficult to move out.
Unlike some drying medications, steam works with the body to help it heal. What's more, moist air can reach deep into the sinus cavity to loosen blockages; the oils add expectorant, decongestant, and germicidal properties.
The easiest way to use steam involves a towel tent. Pour boiling water into a bowl, let it cool for one minute, then add two drops of the oil. Place a towel over your head, close your eyes, and lean over the bowl to inhale the vapors. (Keep your face at least six inches away from the water.)
Repeat twice a day when congested, or even as a preventive measure. If congestion lasts for more than 10 days, see your doctor. And ask about these and any complementary or alternative medicine treatments before you try them.
Dr. Merrell is chairman of the Department of Integrative Medicine at Beth Israel Medical Center in New York City and coauthor of "Power Up: Unleash Your Natural Energy, Power Up Your Health, and Feel 10 Years Younger."