"While steam inhalation gives quick relief from cough and cold, it is not a cure, as the steam does not address the virus that caused it," says Dr. Earl Sempio.
Fil-Am comedian Jokoy was right, after all. In one of his gigs, which went viral on social media, he said that he could have died nine times when he was a kid because his mom didn’t bring him to the doctor when he was sick.
“Just like a typical Filipino mom (at that time), she tried to cure everything at home,” Jokoy said, which brought the house down. “With a bottle of vapor rub.” And probably tuob or suob (steam inhalation).
It became such a hit with his Pinoy fans because steam inhalation is a traditional practice in most Filipino households.
At the slightest sign of a cold, mom would bring water to a boil, pour it in a basin, and drape a towel or blanket over my head to inhale the trapped steam, which might be infused with salt, vapor rub, herbs, and essential oils (camphor or eucalyptus).
This homemade remedy hogged the headlines during the onslaught of the pandemic, when the local government of Cebu issued a memorandum encouraging employees to perform steam inhalation to cure COVID-19 and prevent the spread of the virus despite lack of scientific evidence.
Alarmed by these developments, the Department of Health (DOH) warned that “steam inhalation may aerosolize the novel coronavirus and may lead to further transmission of the disease.”
To steam or not to steam
Pulmonologist and biochemist Dr. Earl Louis A . Sempio strongly discourages steam inhalation infused with essential oils like camphor and eucalyptus for COVID-19 patients.
“These essential oils used for ‘suob’ might do more harm than good,” noted the biochemist. “Too much exposure to camphor oil and eucalyptus may cause inflammation and irritation of the air passage that might lead to seizure and even death among children. Studies also showed that a lot of children suffer from scalding due to suob.”
Steam inhalation loosens secretions. However, when a COVID-19 patient gets irritated by the scent of the oil, he/she will start coughing in the middle of the treatment, which poses a great threat to everyone around him/her.
“That’s why a COVID-19 patient shouldn’t resort to suob,” warned Dr. Roland Panaligan, medial manager of UAP, Unilab Respiratory Division. “If there are red flags, don’t delay consultation.”
Various medical societies have already issued statements regarding steam inhalation for COVID-19 patients. One of them is the Philippine Institute of Traditional and Alternative Healthcare (PITAHC).
Part of the statement reads: “Scientific studies suggest that steam inhalation is, indeed, effective against symptoms of colds and that it increases nasal potency. However, tuob/suob cannot be recommended as a standard-care treatment for COVID-19 until it is proven by controlled clinical studies.”
The Philippine College of Physicians, Philippine Society of Microbiology and Infectious Diseases, and the Philippine College of Chest Physicians have also issued a joint statement saying, “Steam inhalation does not kill the virus and may cause potential harm. We cannot in good conscience endorse its preventive or curative measure.”
Preventive, not curative
Dr. Earl Sempio and Dr. Roland Panaligan were the resource persons in a virtual symposium dubbed “Alagang Unilab: HealthierPH Series,” which discussed the pros and cons of steam inhalation.
Organized by healthcare company Unilab, which is celebrating its 75th year, the informative talk discussed the pros and cons of steam inhalation.
Shedding light on the various pieces of misinformation surrounding the treatment modality, which is used as a therapy for fever, flu, nasal allergies and now COVID-19, Dr. Sempio stressed that steam inhalation “offers quick relief, but not a cure.”
“Steam inhalation is widely practiced, especially in homes; not just in the Philippines but also in the UK and India,” Dr. Sempio shares. “It has been passed on from one generation to the other for centuries now because it gives a person, who may be suffering from the common cold or sinus infections, the relief they need.”
Once the discomfort is gone, we instantly feel that we’re healed. And that makes some of us believe that suob is, indeed, effective.
Even TV host Boy Abunda swears by suob’s efficacy.
“I still practice suob to this day,” Abunda admits. “And every time I do this, I feel way better.”
While steam inhalation alleviates the flu-like symptoms of COVID -19 and nasal congestion, Dr. Sempio stressed that it is not a cure, as “the steam does not address the virus that caused it.”
The problem is that when one feels better, he/she gets a false sense of security that they no longer need a doctor’s advice to address their condition.
“For most of them, suob and Dr. Google are all they need to get better,” said Dr. Sempio. “While I also believe that Dr. Google is your friend, one must have a general knowledge about an illness or a disease before ‘consulting’ Dr. Google. It’s important to check out the right information channels or medical websites.”
Because of the pandemic, we shouldn’t let our guard down easily. And so we get paranoid when a person right next to us suddenly coughs.
“Well, it’s a good thing that we’re being extra-cautious,” said Dr. Sempio. “But it’s quite embarrassing to be tagged a carrier, especially if the cough was only caused by an allergy. A cough is not an illness per se, but it could be a sign of an underlying health problem.”
Apart from COVID-19, Dr. Sempio also discouraged the use of steam inhalation in patients suffering from an infectious condition like tuberculosis, where the possibility of generating infectious droplets is high.
“Seek a health professional’s opinion when it comes to addressing medical concerns, especially cough and cold,” he said. “While some are still afraid to go to the hospital because they may contract the virus, opt for telemedicine. But when the symptoms are really bad — say, you’re experiencing shortness of breath — go to the hospital right away.”
As they say, prevention is always better than the cure. You know the drill: Wear your face mask and face shield when going out, wash hands daily, and practice social distancing.
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“Alagang Unilab: HealthierPH” series is part of Unilab’s initiatives in reaching out to the public to provide health information on primary healthcare and chronic conditions.
For information, call Unilab Customer Care Center at +632-8-864-522-1 (UNILAB-1), visit www.unilab.com.ph or check out its FB and IG pages @unilab.