Can steam cure your cold?

    Bryon MacWilliams is a 'steam master.' He learned the art and science of making steam at a Russian banya

    Bryon MacWilliams is a 'steam master.' He learned the art and science of making steam at a Russian banya

    Steam makes popcorn pop, keeps Old Faithful erupting and once powered the industrial revolution. But does it have the power to cure the common cold? 

    What makes popcorn pop, keeps Old Faithful erupting and once powered the industrial revolution?  


    Powerful stuff, but but can it cure the common cold?  

    Some people believe that sitting in a small steamy room at temperatures of 200 degrees and above can do everything from detoxifying the body to curing hangovers.  

    Philly Steamers is a Facebook group founded by journalist Bryon MacWilliams.  Several times a month group members gather at Southampton Spa, a Russian style bath house outside of Northeast Philadelphia.   They sit in together in a small, wood-paneled room that’s heated by an oven to temperatures that sometimes pass boiling . And they say it makes them feel great. 

    It’s a social gathering based on their mutual love of “steaming.” MacWilliams is serious about steam, specifically, about making steam. He became a fan of steam baths while living and working as a reporter in Moscow, where he also learned the art and science of making steam from one of the masters at a Russian banya.  He has written a memoir of his time in Russia entitled, “With Light Steam, A personal Journey through the Russian Baths”

    If you think all steam is created equal, think again.  MacWilliams says there are many different kinds of steams, one for however the body is feeling.

    “Some days you really want the heavy steams, the ones well over, when its high moisture content, over 200 degrees. They sort of beat you up a little bit,” says MacWilliams.

    “If someone can make different types of steam, it helps the people who are steaming find out what they need.”

    Sometimes what they need is to feel better.  Williams and members of Philly Steamers believe that the moist heat also has health benefits.  Chris Coccia, a stand up comic and a regular Steamer, isn’t joking around when he says that the steam helps him fight off colds.  

    “You feel like you are just sweating it out,” he said. “It does feel like wringing the body out”.

    MacWilliams agrees and says that Russians use the method to stay healthy.

    “If you feel a cold coming on and you go to the banya, right away it will knock it out before it starts”.  

    Robert Czincilla, chief of Emergency Medicine at Einstein Medical Center in East Norriton, disagrees. He stresses that steam is not medicine.

    “Theres no evidence to say being in a sauna makes you get rid of virus, flu, cold any faster than if you take medications, drink fluids and rest.”

    What steam does do, very well, is make people feel better.  The heat is comforting. If your nose is stuffy, steam won’t kill the virus causing the cold but the moist heat will help loosen the congestion.  The high level of heat also relaxes tension in muscles throughout the body so you feel more limber and less achy.

    Czincilla says that in moderation, steam can be very beneficial and relaxing.  And with temperatures in the single digits, some time in the banya may make you forget the winter for a while.

    You can hear a full interview with Bryon MacWilliams and Radio Times host Marty Moss-Coane at the Radio Times archive.

    NewsWorks recently published MacWilliams’ essay “For Russia and Ukraine, the steam room is a neutral zone.”

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