2

Growing up in Russia, almost everyone I knew used this remedy. Here's Internet example.

Fortunately, half an hour is just enough time for you to boil a big pot of potatoes. Remove them from the heat, throw a towel over your head, and breathe the steam for a while.

This was supposed to help with upper respiratory viral symptoms, including nasal congestion and bad coughs.

Is there scientific evidence that this helps?

4

It sounds like this is a Russian variant of a common home remedy of inhaling steam as a decongestant. [Examples: The Health Site, WebMD]

  • The Cochrane Library reviewed the evidence: Heated, humidified air for the common cold.

    There is not enough evidence to show if steam inhalation improves or exacerbates nasal congestion when a person has a cold

    The congestion from the common cold, arising from swelling of the membranes and thickened mucus inside the nose, has been treated for decades with inhaled steam in the hope this makes the mucus drain away easier. Also there is laboratory evidence that cold virus may be sensitive to heat. However this review found that in some studies, inhaling steam helped symptoms, others did not, so there was not enough evidence to be sure. There were some adverse effects (discomfort or irritation on the nose or lips). No studies included children.

  • Home remedy or hazard? management and costs of paediatric steam inhalation therapy burn injuries explicitly warns against the practice for children due to the high number of burns victims that were admitted to a burns centre due to the practice.

    Steam inhalation incurs a significant cost to patients and the healthcare system. Its practice continues to be recommended by GPs but children, due to their limited motor skills, curiosity, and poor awareness of danger, are at significant risk of burn injuries and this dangerous practice should no longer be recommended.

I guess there is a chance that that the Russian variant means that the potatoes add a trace of something medicinal to the steam, in which case this answer is less satisfactory, but I consider that chance to be rather remote.

  • 1
    Does Cochran go deep enough to see how the studies differed so that they produced different results? Or merely filter "good enough" list and aggregate summaries? If nothing better shows up, i'll accept this answer later. – user5341 Jan 5 '17 at 1:38
  • One thing missing from this answer is, why potatoes? Why not water, or other vegetables? – user5341 Jan 5 '17 at 1:40
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    They make some unconvincing speculations, e.g. "There is a possibility of difference in the epidemiology of rhinoviral infections in the subjects from different geographical areas, especially in relation to the viral strains. Climatic and seasonal differences may also have affected the outcome. There was a difference in the duration of warm vapor inhalation with a longer period (30 minutes) being associated with no benefit and increased resistance of the nasal passage. Hence, one can postulate an optimum duration of heat administration would coincide with a subjective feeling of comfort." – Oddthinking Jan 5 '17 at 1:45
  • Why potatoes? Because they're available and you can eat them after they're boiled. – Nij Jan 5 '17 at 1:55

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