TV commercials for cold remedies often feature a bleary-eyed sufferer with a red nose hunched over a bowl of steaming water…usually with a towel draped over his head.

It’s a popular home treatment—and not just for colds. Many doctors recommend breathing in steam to their patients with sinusitis, a common condition in which the nasal passages (sinuses) get clogged for weeks, even months, at a time. It’s a frustrating condition that often causes sinus pain and headaches, and it’s tough to treat effectively—antibiotics often fail.

Unfortunately, breathing in steam to clear your sinuses is just…hot air, according to a new study. But there’s good news, too. The researchers confirmed that a different home remedy really works.


In a British study, 870 patients with chronic or recurring sinusitis were assigned to one of four treatments…

  • Saline nasal irrigation with a neti pot, a device that looks like a tiny teapot that lets you pour saltwater up one nostril and let it drain out the other one. Then you repeat with the other nostril.
  • Breathing steam from a bowl of recently boiled water.
  • A combination of both remedies.
  • Just following their doctors’ usual care instructions, which sometimes included antibiotics (the control group).

The three treatment groups inhaled steam and/or irrigated their nasal passages for five minutes daily and were followed for six months.

Result: Participants who inhaled steam did report fewer headaches but no congestion relief. But those who used a neti pot—with or without steaming—reported less congestion over the next six months compared with the groups that didn’t use a neti pot. They also took fewer OTC medications and had fewer headaches.

This isn’t the first study to report that neti pots are a great way to treat sinusitis. But now we know not to waste time with that towel over your head—if you want to get rid of a nagging sinus problem, go right for the neti.

Important caution: If you want to try using a neti pot for sinus congestion relief, don’t use water straight from the tap. To avoid turning sinusitis into something worse, the CDC advises using filtered, boiled or distilled water—not just for irrigating your nasal passages but to rinse the pot after each time you use it. Then let the pot air dry.

Now, when your sinuses are clogged, you know what to do!