The claim: Inhaling citrus steam can kill respiratory viruses, including coronavirus
A popular social media post claims inhaling citrus steam kills respiratory viruses, including COVID-19.
According to a graphic shared by countless social media users, boiling a pot of water with orange or lemon peels and salt, then inhaling the steam for 15 minutes will kill respiratory viruses, including coronavirus, influenza and rhinovirus.
Physicians and infectious disease experts say the steam treatments cannot kill the viruses. But they can relieve symptoms of some respiratory illnesses.
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Steam remedies, typically supplemented with essential oils, have often been lauded as an at-home remedy to relieve symptoms of respiratory infections.
According to Healthline.com, “steam inhalation is one of the most widely used home remedies to soothe and open the nasal passages and get relief from the symptoms of a cold or sinus infection.” Inhaling warm, moist air can loosen the mucus in the nasal passages, throat, and lungs, and may relieve symptoms of inflamed, swollen blood vessels in the nasal passages. It can relieve symptoms, but it won’t cure an infection.
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The University of Maryland Medical System also recommends inhaling steam or water vapor to help treat coronavirus symptoms.
Medical News Today reports that use of certain essential oils show may also relieve congestion.
But there there is little scientific evidence to show lemon or citrus oils have the same effect, though eucalyptus and peppermint are promising.
Steam cannot kill viral infections, carries risk of burns
Inhaling citrus-infused steam cannot kill a viral infection and brings with it the risk of dangerous skin burns. Moreover, the FDA has determined essential oils are ineffective in treatment of the novel coronavirus.
Dr. Calvin Smith, an internal medicine physician at Meharry Medical College in Nashville, Tennessee, said some of his patients have been requesting information about the viral treatment. He said steam remedies can temporarily alleviate some coronavirus symptoms, like chest and nasal congestion, but he does not recommend the treatment to patients because of the risk of skin burns.
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“It can actually be therapeutic, but it won’t help cure or kill or do anything to the virus at all,” Smith said. “The virus has a fatty envelope around it, and steam isn’t going to dissolve that at a safe temperature.”
Steam temperatures must be above 200 degrees Fahrenheit to dissolve the fatty envelope, Smith said. A safe temperature for steam remedies is below 120 degrees Fahrenheit, with your skin at a reasonable distance from the steam, for no more than 30 minutes.
Without taking precautions, Smith said it’s very easy for patients to get burns, resulting in “intensely painful skin peeling.” Such burns and skin damage make skin tissues more susceptible to viral infections.
Dr. William Schaffner, professor of preventative medicine and infectious diseases at Vanderbilt University in Nashville, said this is the first he’s heard of this claim, but it’s “probably solution No. 997” that’s been offered online as a cure to the coronavirus.
“The question everyone should ask is, if this works, why hasn’t it been recommended by Dr. (Anthony) Fauci, Dr. (Deborah) Birx, Dr. (Robert) Redfield at the CDC, and our local health department? If it hasn’t been recommended by them, it’s very likely that it’s spurious,” said Schaffner, one of the nation's leading experts on infectious diseases, referring to Fauci and Birx of the White House's Coronavirus Task Force.
Schaffner said he has seen no evidence for this recommendation.
“You have to look to see if someone has, in a scientifically rigorous fashion, given it a test to see that it works,” he said.
Why do people believe it?
“The biggest thing about COVID-19 is that most people are asymptomatic or mildly symptomatic, so anything that’s providing relief can be seen as curative,” Smith said. “But for someone experiencing severe symptoms, this isn’t going to provide relief at all. It’s kind of like the old wives’ tale of chicken noodle soup to provide comfort: It certainly can — if you’re lucky enough to not be scalded.”
“The idea in and of itself is not bad. The execution, however, tends to be pretty dangerous,” Smith said. “I’ve had people leaning over pots that are boiling or near boiling, and even those temperatures won’t kill the virus. The temperature that kills virus is well above 200 degrees, and that’s not compatible with life.”
If you do choose to inhale hot water vapor, use shower steam rather than boiling it in a kettle, and limit your exposure to less than 30 minutes. Alternatively, Smith suggested turning on the shower and closing the bathroom door to create a closed steam environment, much like a sauna. Aromatics, such as essential oil diffusers, may also be helpful to relieve congestion.
Our ruling: False
Our research shows the claim that inhaling citrus-infused steam can kill respiratory viruses is FALSE. Inhaling steam also has the potential to cause serious burns. Steam can be an effective symptom-remedy for mild cases of the coronavirus and other respiratory viruses, however.
Our sourcesInterview, Dr. Calvin Smith, an internal medicine physician at Meharry Medical College in Nashville.Interview, Dr. William Schaffner, professor of preventative medicine and infectious diseases at Vanderbilt University in NashvilleHealthline, “Steam Inhalation: What Are the Benefits?”Medical News Today, “Health Benefits of Eucalyptus.”University of Maryland Medical SystemBMJ, National Library of Medicine, National Institutes of Health, “Burns caused by steam inhalation for respiratory tract infections in children.”British Journal of General Practice, National Library of Medicine, National Institutes of Health, “Steam inhalation therapy: severe scalds as an adverse side effect.” American Society for Microbiology, National Library of Medicine, National Institutes of Health, “Burn Wound Infections.”Healthline, “What You Need to Know About Lemon Essential Oil.”Johns Hopkins Medicine, “Aromatherapy: Do Essential Oils Really Work?”Evidence Based and Complementary Alternative Medicine, National Library of Medicine, National Institutes of Health, “Antimicrobial Properties of Plant Essential Oils against Human Pathogens and Their Mode of Action: An Updated Review.”U.S. Food and Drug Administration, “Quinessence Aromatherapy LTD Warning Letter.”
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