Steamer , Vaporizer or Nebulizer – What’s the DIFF?

Woman breathing steam with a lot of yellow
'A lot of my friends are session singers and they are raving about personal steamers and nebulizers, but they don’t seem to know the difference.'

Dr Jahn,

A lot of my friends are session singers and they are raving about personal steamers and nebulizers, but they don’t seem to know the difference. Is there a difference between steam, vapour and nebulized mist? Which one is best for soothing the vocal cords?

-Janine

Hi Janine,

Here is the essential difference between steamers or vaporizers versus nebulizers:

Steamers and vaporizers work by heating water into steam. What evaporates is only water and materials that are water-soluble.

We often recommend using steamers for sore throat or laryngitis, usually either with distilled water or normal (0.9%) saline solution. The liquid vapor is usually warm and normally goes into your vocal tract no farther than the hypopharynx and larynx.

As the steam cools, it precipitates as water and moisturizes the vocal tract. Adding a drop or two of a volatile oil such as eucalyptus oil, is soothing and harmless.

Nebulizers on the other hand mechanically fragment liquid into tiny particles. This includes any liquid, including those that may not be water soluble.

Furthermore, the nebulized particles are small, and travel farther down into the trachea and the lower respiratory tract than inhaled steam.

The problem with nebulizers is that, if you nebulize materials that the trachea and bronchi cannot clear, you may cause an accumulation foreign material in the lung.

For this reason, you should be careful about using a nebulizer.

I would suggest doing so only with a doctor’s advice and only with healing materials, usually by prescription, that treats specific medical conditions such as asthma or, in children, croup.

-Dr Jahn

For more, see Dr. Jahn’s chapter on “Home Remedies” in “The Singer’s Guide to Complete Health”.

Dr. Jahn is an internationally renowned otolaryngologist based in Manhattan with a sub-specialty interest in the professional voice. His practice includes classical and popular singers. He holds academic appointments at Mount Sinai School of Medicine and Westminster Choir College in Princeton, and is Medical Director at the Metropolitan Opera and Jazz at Lincoln Center. Dr. Jahn has published "The Singer's Guide to Complete Health" (Oxford University Press) - a comprehensive guidebook on a wide range of health issues that affect the voice.