When you have a cold, sinus infection or the flu, steam inhalations can help penetrate the phlegm and get medicine into you directly. There are two cells between the receptors in the nose and the brain, so inhaled odors can signal the brain to make specific changes. And the part of the brain stimulated is one of our oldest parts, in evolutionary terms, affecting much of the body.
Steam brings volatile oils into the nose. When the antimicrobial oils like rosemary, sage, tea tree, peppermint, eucalyptus, lemon eucalyptus, ravinsera and melaluca are used, then inhalations can break up congestion in the lungs, and carry compounds into the blood stream and tissues. They may also help with pustular acne. Lavender can be relaxing and help sleep. Lemongrass and black pepper essential oil are lemony nervines if you are tense.
While there are special steamers that you can stick your face into, all it takes is a bowl, some essential oils or teas and a towel. You can make a strong tea of, say rosemary or white sage and pour it into a bowl. Boil the water and add the herbs, Alternatively place steaming water into the bowl, and add two or three drops of essential oils. Place your face over, not into the bowl, and cover your head and the bowl with a tent from the towel to concentrate the medicinal steam. Close your eyes and breathe deeply. You may need to take breaks occasionally, but a large enough towel tent will allow you to keep your face some distance from the heat.
Be careful that children- or adults- realize that the steam is hot and don’t stick their faces into the water or too close to the bowl. If a child is too young or an adult too unsteady, a few drops of essential oils can be placed in the medication well of a vaporizer or humidifier. The closer to the humidifier one is, the more medicinal the dose.
Diffusing a few drops of essential oil into a room will have an effect on your health as well, but is better for setting a mood or clearing out bad air than treating acute disease. Just remember that essential oils are very concentrated and can cause problems in excess, so diffuse for a few minutes each hour instead of all of the time.