Essential oils: The basics
Steaming or pressing plants releases aroma-rich oils. These oils contain the odor and flavor of the plants, and are often referred to as the plant’s essence. Essences can be added to a variety of products like perfumes, candles, and aromatherapy scents. They’re also sometimes added to foods and drinks.
For centuries, essences or essential oils have also been used as alternative treatments for a variety of medical conditions. In recent years, essential oils have gained popularity as nontraditional treatments. These oils are also gaining attention from the health community.
Essentials oils give off an essence and using them is called aromatherapy. Essentials oils should be diluted in a carrier oil if applied to the skin. Essential oils should not be swallowed.
Extracting essences from plants by natural means produces pure, high-quality oils. These oils can be used in a variety of ways. Many people use essential oils strictly as an aromatherapy product.
These oils can also be applied to the skin or diffused in a steamer. Gently inhaling the scents can provide benefits that include relaxation and headache relief.
“Asthma is a condition that often gets worse in anxious moments,” said Erin Stair, MD, MPH, a New York-based doctor. Breathing exercises combined with some aromatherapy may also offer relief in many instances.
Most quality, peer-reviewed studies exclusively examined and analyzed the potential of essential oils as aromatherapy options. However, it’s important to note studies that support the use of essential oils as mainstream alternative medical treatments are limited.
However, several oils have shown potential as alternative treatments for asthma symptoms:
Peppermint in the form of an herb is a common tea. Peppermint, in essential oil form, may help reduce symptoms of an asthma attack when used in a diffuser or diluted in a carrier oil and applied to the skin. It’s unclear how this happens, but it appears the oil may reduce asthma’s effect on bronchial smooth muscle.
According to one study, breathing in diffused lavender essential oil may help reduce inflammation caused by allergies and asthma. Add a few drops of the oil to a diffuser or a humidifier to reap the benefits.
You likely know clove from the culinary world. This flower also produces an essential oil that may help relieve symptoms of asthma. When taken in a mixture with water, clove essential oil may help reduce symptoms such as wheezing, chest pain, and difficulty breathing.
Eucalyptus oil may be effective in helping people manage the symptoms of respiratory conditions such as asthma, bronchitis, and the common cold. However, eucalyptus oil is one that is dangerous to children.
Rosemary extract relaxes the smooth muscles of the trachea, according to a 1999 study. This results in more relaxed breathing.
More recent research shows rosemary can reduce asthma symptoms in people who didn’t see improvement from traditional treatments. Subjects of one study saw a decrease in asthma symptoms such as chest pain, sputum production, and wheezing.
How to Use Essential Oils for Symptoms of Asthma
The best time to use an essential oil treatment for asthma is between attacks, not while you’re having one or experiencing an increase in symptoms.
“It all depends on the person, on the ailment, on how you use it,” says Birgitta Lauren, a Los Angeles-based aromatherapist. However, “a reduction in symptoms can take from 10 minutes to weeks…Try each [oil] separately.”
Here are some instructions to help you get started:
Mix 2 to 3 drops of an essential oil with 1/4 cup of a carrier oil. Carrier oils are neutral oils that dilute the essential oil, helping a little bit go a long way. Carrier oils also help spread the fragrance around so you’re not as likely to be overwhelmed by the scent.
Spread the oil combination on your chest and inhale the scent for 15 to 20 minutes.
Repeat daily as needed.
Steam bath with lavender
If you’re using lavender essential oil, consider making a steam bath.
Fill a bucket or bowl with steaming water.
Add 2 to 3 drops of the lavender essential oil to the water, and gently stir.
Place your face directly over the water, being careful not to touch the hot water. Drape a towel over your head so it covers both your head and the sides of the bowl.
Inhale deeply for 5 to 10 minutes.
Take a break for a few minutes, and then repeat 2 to 3 more times.
Air dispersed oils
An essential oil diffuser or a humidifier can disperse the concentrated oil into the air. Note that it’s important to clean diffusers and humidifiers regularly to avoid mold growth.
Epsom salt bath
If you have a large bathtub, you can also add a few drops of the oil to Epsom salt, then pour the salt into a warm bath. Breathe deeply to enjoy the aromatic benefits of the essential oils in your bath.
It all depends on the person, on the ailment, on how you use it, [but a] reduction in symptoms can take from 10 minutes to weeks.
Risks and warnings
Different people have different reactions to essential oils, so it’s important to be cautious as you integrate essential oils into your routine. Although they’re widely considered safe, you should speak with your doctor to make sure you don’t have an allergy. If you’re allergic to an essential oil, that oil may trigger an attack. You should also make sure that adding essential oils won’t interfere with your plan for controlling your asthma.
Strong odors and fragrances may trigger an asthma attack. If you’re generally sensitive to fragrances, you should avoid using essential oils or any aromatherapy treatment.
If your asthma symptoms worsen after you begin using the essential oils, stop immediately. Consult your doctor before you use this alternative treatment again.
Healthcare professionals generally advise against oral consumption. Some essential oils are toxic.
Other treatments for asthma symptoms
Aromatherapy and essential oils aren’t a cure for asthma. You should continue to use your prescribed medication or recommended treatment regimen. Treatments may include:
Asthma control medications are often the foundation of all asthma treatment plans. Long-term medications, such as inhaled corticosteroids, provide day-to-day relief from many asthma symptoms. They also help reduce the likelihood of an attack.
Quick-relief bronchodilators can ease the symptoms of an asthma attack within minutes. Most people with asthma keep an inhaler with them at all times.
People with asthma made worse or caused by seasonal allergies may opt to take allergy medication during the most active allergy periods.
Using alternative therapies to prevent asthma attacks
Yoga or breathing exercises can also help head off the respiratory distress that stems from stress or anxiety.
Buteyko breathing is beneficial for people with asthma, Stair says. “Inhale and exhale normally. At the end of the normal exhalation, hold the breath. This is called the controlled pause. The more you do this exercise, the longer the controlled pause will become.”
She adds that repeated practice with the exercise can help a person consciously control their breath in stressful situations.
A healthy diet, exercise, and paying close attention to your overall well-being can also provide benefits.
What you can do now
If you’re curious about essential oils, and how they might help ease your symptoms of asthma, do a little homework first.
Talk with your doctor
You don’t necessarily need a doctor’s supervision to use essential oils, but it’s a good idea to let them know what you plan to use. Your doctor can assess whether these oils may react with any medications you’re taking.
Find a reputable source
The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) doesn’t regulate essential oils. That means oil qualities and purity levels are entirely dependent on the manufacturer’s self-imposed standards. Research brands before purchasing.
Don’t be afraid to talk with your doctor or a nurse. Many healthcare workers understand how to use these oils and can help you start using them.
If you begin experiencing any unusual symptoms while using essential oils, you should stop using them and consult your doctor.
Medically Reviewed By: Debra Sullican, PhD, MSN, RN, CNE COI; Article Written By: Kimberly Holland and Kirsten Schofield; healthline.com