Humidity and Croup

Hot steam or cold mist no longer believed helpful for croup

humidifier
Steam is widely thought to be the best option for croup...too bad we've all been wrong. Patti McConville / Getty Images

When your child gets croup, you are likely to be searching for something that can alleviate it as quickly as possible, perhaps to avoid a trip to the doctor or even the emergency room. An old home remedy suggests that steam may work. Will putting your child in the shower or in a steamy bathroom with the hot shower running will soothe croup cough? The answer is that no, research does not support this practice.

Croup

Croup is an inflammation of the larynx, usually from a viral infection, that is commonly seen in kids. Adults can get it, too, but they are more likely to call it laryngitis. Croup is seen in babies and toddlers from the ages of 6 months to 3 years. Your child may have sudden symptoms of a cough. Croup causes a loud, barking cough that sounds a bit like a sea lion. He may have trouble breathing and a high-pitched noise while breathing in, known as stridor.

The symptoms often start at night, get better during the day, and get worse again at night. You can see how a parent can be desperate for something they can do at home at midnight for their baby. Croup is common in kids and often gets better without treatment.

Can Cold Mist or Hot Steam Help Croup?

There aren't studies of using the hot and steamy shower trick at home, but there is plenty of research into the use of humidity to treat croup in the emergency department.

In every study, humidity didn't seem to help at all.

Healthcare providers were taught for years that humidity would alleviate croup. Indeed, humidity was supposed to work so well it was actually said that you could diagnose croup if humidity worked to quell the coughing.

In olden days, people would put on a hot kettle for steam or use a hot steam vaporizer.

These brought the risk of scalding or burns, and so cold mist systems were developed.

Now, home treatment recommendations such as those from the Mayo Clinic say that humidified air has no evidence of benefit, even though many parents still believe in it. Based on a definitive Cochrane review, a review in the Canadian Medical Association Journal (CMAJ) says, "Though traditionally used for decades in the acute care setting, humidified air (mist) has now been definitively shown to be ineffective in croup and should not be given."

Home Treatment for Croup

Croup that doesn't get better within a couple of days could get dangerously worse. Be sure to take kids to the doctor if their barking cough doesn't go away in a day or two. Call 911 for any person with severe shortness of breath, no matter the cause.

The good news is that most cases get better after three to five days. You can keep your child more comfortable by holding him in an upright position to make breathing easier. Crying can make the symptoms worse, so they advice keeping your child calm. Give your child fluids and encourage him to sleep. Don't give your child over-the-counter cold medications as those won't help croup and are not recommended in any case for children under the age of 2.

You and your child might want to rest as much as you can during the day as the symptoms are better then and are likely to come back during the night.

Sources:

Bjornson CL, Johnson DW. Croup in children. CMAJ : Canadian Medical Association Journal. 2013;185(15):1317-1323. doi:10.1503/cmaj.121645.

Croup. Mayo Clinic. https://www.mayoclinic.org/diseases-conditions/croup.

Moore M, Little P. Humidified air inhalation for treating croup: a systematic review and meta-analysis. Family Practice. 2007;24(4):295-301. doi:10.1093/fampra/cmm022.

Continue Reading