One of the reasons we are more susceptible to picking up illnesses in the winter is that the air is so dry that our mucous membranes, the special skin inside our noses, mouths, and throats (and elsewhere) dry out more than they should–and so germs are able to get into places that are otherwise protected by a mucous layer.
Steams combat dry winter air to help decrease our bodies’ susceptibility to germs. This is why those of us with wood heat usually keep water boiling on the stove, and why humidifiers are so popular in the winter.
In our home, I have a small pot double-doubling on the stove all season. The herbs change based on what I have on hand–fragrant scraps like orange peels, bits of aromatic medicinal herbs, whatever. I keep a calamus braid, branches of eucalyptus, thyme, and rosemary, and a garden sage-mugwort burn bundle hanging in the kitchen for easy access, so when I add water to the pot I can just toss in some more leaves without thinking about it.
When someone in my family is sick, I’m likely to be more heavy-handed with the aromatic herbs that contain volatile oils, like thyme, bee balm, and eucalyptus, as steam really helps get those medicinal oils where they need to be–which can help immensely with congestion, cough, and sinus pressure. I’ll put the boiled water in a bowl and have them bend over it with a towel covering their head and just breath slowly and deeply (careful to use a big enough bowl so that they won’t splash and burn themselves!). My mom used to do this with a paper bag with the bottom cut out, and we’d breath through the bag like a tube; that works well too. Or I’ll add the water to a warm bath, especially for a younger child or anyone who is at risk of burning themselves with a bowl of hot water.
Here are some more ideas about ways to incorporate immune health into your family’s lifestyle