Steam inhalation offers relief but is no cure for COVID-19, doctor says

Leah C. Salterio

Posted at Nov 21 2020 06:18 AM

Dr. Earl Louis Sempio. Handout

MANILA -- Pulmunologist and biochemist Dr. Earl Louis Sempio put the spotlight on steam inhalation or tuob/suob in local parlance.

Sempio spoke about the pros and cons of steam inhalation at a recent virtual symposium by pharmaceutical and healthcare company Unilab, which helped shed some light on the misinformation surrounding this traditional treatment.

Steam inhalation made headlines during the COVID-19 pandemic, having been recommended by some but frowned upon by others.

Practiced for centuries, steam inhalation is the process of inhaling water vapor to relieve clogged nose brought by the common cold. Some use steam inhalation as a therapy for nasal allergies or sinus infection, while some resort to when they have fever or flu.

The Philippine Institute of Traditional and Alternative Health Care was recently tasked by the government to give a statement about traditional health practices.

Last June 30, the institute recognized that scientific studies suggest that steam inhalation is indeed effective against symptoms of colds as it increases nasal patency. According to Sempio, steam inhalation can make one feel better, although, he stressed, that in itself, it is not a cure for COVID-19.

Citing statements of medical science, different doctors and specialists, Sempio said doctors also understand that steam inhalation alleviates the symptoms of nasal congestion, but it doesn’t kill the virus.

“Steam inhalation might cause potential harm,” Sempio added. “We cannot, in good conscience, endorse its use as preventive or curative. We will not recommend something that can harm, the patient cannot use correctly or can worsen something. We should not be complacent.”

He pointed to people who abuse the use of steam inhalation. “The minute they are relieved, that’s medicine for them,” he said.

Giving an analogy, the physician likens the temporary relief to the use of an umbrella whenever it rains. “The umbrella cannot stop the rain,” Sempio pointed out. “The umbrella prevents you from getting wet. The umbrella, that’s a remedy, temporary relief, but not an answer to the problem.

“We cannot predict that if you use an umbrella, the rain will stop. ‘Yung bagyo, hindi natin alam kung babahain ka o mas matindi ang problema. Our remedy or temporary relief is like the umbrella we use. We want the people to always be safe. We will not recommend.”

Sempio also touched on natural products, like eucalyptus oil, which was recognized as early as 1896 and can give relief.

“Bata pa ako, mga magulang ko, lola ko, ginagamit na ang eucalyptus oil. Nakakaramdam tayo ng ginhawa. Ang sarap huminga whenever we smell eucaplyptus. Pero tandaan natin, kahit ano’ng sobra, masama. There are those that cause irritation,” he said.

He cited the effects of camphor or menthol that can trigger the excretion of mucus or even inflammation. “Anything in excess can cause a problem,” he warned. “There are different effects of menthol. We never exactly know the potential effects.”

Amid the pandemic, Sempio strongly discourages steam inhalation for coronavirus patients. “Steam inhalation can make you feel better, but it doesn’t kill the virus,” he emphasized. “It is not a cure for COVID-19. That is not proven.

“Steam inhalation might even lead to adverse side effects or complications of the disease. There is no evidence that steam inhalation can be used in the treatment and prevention of COVID-19. It is only a remedy and definitely not a cure," he said.

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