What is Hydrotherapy?
Hydrotherapy - or the use of water for healing - has been utilized for ages for all types of ailments. I love using hydrotherapy when my family is sick, as it’s inexpensive, easy to do at home, and it doesn’t require a lot of supplies. Plus, it works really well and provides soothing when they need it most.
Everyone knows the benefit of a hot shower or soak in the hot tub – it leaves us feeling relaxed yet refreshed. In the Naturopathic approach to hydrotherapy, we often contrast hot treatments with cold treatments to add an extra layer of rejuvenation and to boost the immune system. Hydrotherapy works to improve circulation, remove toxins, and promote sweating, all of which aid in immunity. Studies have shown that even a single hydrotherapy treatment using hot and cold water applications can increase White Blood Cells and other immune cells, and that regular hydrotherapy can decrease the frequency of colds. Additionally, hydrotherapy can decrease pain, helping to address headache, sinus pressure, and body aches that can come with a cold or flu (1-3).
How to use Home Hydrotherapy
These home hydro treatments can be started at the first sign of illness and continued once or twice a day until your child is feeling better. The good news is that you can also use these therapies if you’re feeling sick (because you know you’re probably next ☹), as they are safe for both adults and kids. Some treatments aren’t suitable for infants or toddlers, so I have indicated the appropriate age for each treatment. Always err on the side of caution where temperature is concerned. Remember that children have thinner skin than adults and are more sensitive to temperature extremes, so if something feels hot to you, it will feel even hotter to them.
Always test the temperature of the water or towel on yourself before placing it on your child.
1. Steam Inhalation: Shower and Sink
Local Treatment: Respiratory System – nose, sinuses, lungs.
Benefit: Loosens phlegm, moistens the mucous membranes, aids with congestion and cough.
Supplies: Sink / large pot or shower, hot water, towel. Optional: dried herbs or fresh pine needles.
Shower Steam Inhalation
Recommended Age: Infant – 4 years
Instructions: If your kiddo is too young to sit still over a hot sink, a steam in the bathroom is a better option. Run the shower on hot and let the room fill with steam (don’t forget to turn off the ceiling fan). Sit in the room with your child and let the shower run for 10-15 minutes. This treatment is especially helpful if your child has a croupy cough.
Sink Steam Inhalation
Recommended Age: 5+
Instructions: Boil a kettle of water on the stove and pour into a plugged sink or a large pot. Add ½ cup - 1 cup dried herbs like peppermint, chamomile, mullein, sage, and thyme and let steep for 10-15 minutes. If you don’t have any of these herbs at home, find a branch that has fallen from a pine tree and add ½ cup of the fresh pine needles to the water. Cool the water until it is tolerable to stand over for several minutes. Place a towel over your child’s head and shoulders and have her place her head over the sink for as long as she can tolerate or until the water cools. Repeat as needed.
Mountain Rose Herbs, has a great video demonstrating How to Make an Herbal Steam with Chamomile.
FUN FACT: A humidifier is a form of hydrotherapy we use all the time. Rooms with higher humidity can decrease the spread of viruses by up to 30%! (4)
2. Warming Throat Compress
Ugh, a sore throat is the worst. And how about swollen lymph nodes that feel like boulders when you swallow? A hydrotherapy throat compress works to circulate blood and lymph tissue out of the area and bring in new cells, which can provide soothing to a sore throat or swollen neck.
Local Treatment: Throat, lymph, neck muscles
Benefit: Soothes sore throat and swollen or sore neck, moves lymph tissue and blood.
Supplies: Hot water, cold water, washcloth or small hand towel, wool or flannel scarf.
Recommended Age: 3+
Instructions: Make sure your child is warm before doing this treatment (give him a shower or hot foot bath first or have him bundle under blankets until warm). Wet a hand towel in cold water and squeeze out all the excess water. Draw the towel under the chin and from ear to ear and attach the ends on the top of your child’s head. Wrap a wool or flannel scarf on top of the cold towel. The scarf should be snug enough that no drafts can get in, but loose enough that it’s still comfortable. Leave on for 30-45 minutes or as long as your child will tolerate. The body will warm and dry the towel.
3. Alternating hot and cold compress for Headache
When your kiddo's cold or flu comes with a headache, this is an easy treatment for relieving it. This treatment can also be helpful for moving congestion out of the frontal sinuses, which may just be the cause of the headache.
Local Treatment: Sinuses and head
Benefit: Reduces congestion in the sinuses, moves stagnant blood and lymph out of the area to relieve pain.
Supplies: Two washcloths, hot water, cold water.
Recommended Age: Infant+
Instructions: Wet a washcloth under hot water in the sink, wring out all excess water. Place it on the forehead, making sure to cover the area between the eyebrows, where the frontal sinuses are located. Let it sit on the forehead for 3 minutes. The heat of the washcloth draws blood to the area. Remove the washcloth and place a cold washcloth on the forehead for 1 minute. The cold flushes the blood from the area, which can relieve pain. Repeat 3-4 times, ending with cold.
4. Warming Socks
Affectionately called “Magic Socks” by many kids, Warming Socks is the most favored home hydro treatment of Naturopathic Medicine. This treatment is best done before bed when your child is already warm (shower or bundle first, if necessary). Slapping cold socks on your feet before bed sounds odd, I know! But patients find when they do Warming Socks, they sleep better and wake up healthier the next morning.
Systemic Treatment: Whole Body
Benefit: Flushes the blood, moves lymph, relaxes the body, promotes sweating.
Supplies: Cold water, thin cotton socks, thick wool socks.
Recommended Age: Infant+
Instructions: Place the cotton socks under cold water or wet and put them in the freezer for 5 minutes. Wring out well, place on your child’s feet, then cover with the dry wool socks (or whatever heavy socks you have). Have your child immediately get under the covers and go to sleep. Since this treatment promotes sweating, they will likely wake up on the hot side in a few hours and the socks will be dry. They can remove the socks at that point if they wish, or sleep with them on until morning
5. Hot, hot, hot
This treatment is great for kids who can’t shake the chill of a cold or who always run on the cold side. It’s also a great way to make your child sleepy before bed. Hot, hot, hot refers to a hot bath with hot tea, followed by a hot bed. Since it warms the inside and the outside at the same time, this treatment promotes fever and sweating. Try to remember that a fever is your friend when you’re sick. Fever is one of the ways our body fights illness and should be encouraged, not suppressed by medication.
Systemic Treatment: Whole Body
Benefit: Warms a cold person, soothes the autonomic nervous system, induces drowsiness, promotes sweating.
Supplies: Bathtub, hot water, hot tea, warm pajamas, a bed with ample blankets.
Recommended Age: Infant+
Instructions: Draw a bath that’s on the warmer side (while still being safe). Place your child in the bath for 20 minutes. Give her hot tea to drink in the bath, encouraging her to inhale the steam. Ginger is the preferred tea for this treatment, as ginger is a very warming herb and most kids like the taste of it. If ginger is too spicy for your child, try spearmint or simply lemon and honey in hot water. Next, dry your child off and put her in warm clothes, like sweat pants or flannel jammies, socks, and a winter hat. Have her get into bed and cover her entirely, using extra blankets. She should stay in bed for at least an hour, but can sleep this way overnight if she wishes.
Dr. Michelle Haff (she/her) is a Naturopathic Doctor and Certified Acupuncturist at Lilac Natural Medicine in Bedford, New Hampshire. Her practice focuses on Pediatrics, Women's Medicine, GI, Endocrine, and Mental Health concerns. She is a Primary Care Provider for the whole family and loves treating kids from pre-conception into their teens, as well as adults of all ages.