Though it may be known as a home remedy, it is hardly a wives tale. A hot steamy shower will indeed relieve symptoms of chest congestion. Whether it's a steamy shower at home, a sit in the steam room at the gym or putting your head under a towel over a vaporizer, many mothers, doctors and even alternative medicine practitioners agree that steam will help relax your breathing and promote expectoration (coughing).
How Steam Works
Chest congestion is caused by both inflammation of the air passages in your lungs and the build up of phlegm in your chest. Relief from both of these situations comes from dilating (relaxing and opening up) those air passages so air flows more freely through them.
Steam is generated by hot water either in a shower or a steam room (steam bath) or in a vaporizer. Breathing in steam helps relax the muscles in your diaphragm, loosens the air passageways in your lungs and helps calm and regulate breathing. Standing in a hot shower or sitting in a steam bath also helps relax the rest of your body.
As your body and airways relax, the air passages in your chest and lungs open up, allowing for easier, more restful breathing. It also allows space to expectorate, that is cough up, the phlegm that has built up there.
There are medications that can accomplish this same result, but steam offers a chemical-free option to relieving this discomfort.
How Much Steam?
Most professional recommendations agree that steam treatments should last about 10 or 15 minutes. Recommendations say you shouldn't spend more than 10 or 15 minutes in a steam room at a time for safety reasons. A hot shower doesn't generate the same intensity of steam, so duration can be a bit longer. Two or three such treatments per day are recommended for best results.
Children and Toddlers
For children and toddlers suffering chest congestion, some doctors recommend starting a hot shower in the bathroom with the door closed. The water should be hot enough to steam up the mirror. Sit with the child in the steamy room, not actually getting into the shower, for 10 to 15 minutes in the morning and again before bed to relieve the symptoms. Parents also can pat the child's back--like when burping after meals--to help move the phlegm out.