Essential Oils for Asthma

Research and Safety Issues Surrounding Aromatherapy Treatment Options

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Aromatherapy involves the aerosolization of naturally occurring extracts from plants. Aromatherapy is is a method of using natural aromas and essential oils to provide a physical or psychological therapeutic effect and is a growing trend in complementary and alternative medicine. Use of essential oils is controversial, as little research to validate effectiveness or potential harm has been done. Despite the lack of research, many people believe they receive symptomatic relief including aromatherapy into their care regimen.

mint oil
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What Is Asthma?

Asthma is a chronic disease that affects your quality of breathing. Inflammation in your airway causes narrowing that does not allow as much air to flow through. Much like pipes in your home that become blocked and make loud noises as water flows through them, asthma causes you to wheeze during an exacerbation or attack. Dust, chemicals, or other aerosolized irritants can cause an exacerbation, flare up, or asthma attack. You are having an asthma attack when you experience a sudden shortness of breath, pain or tightening in your chest, and frequent coughing or wheezing. Because of the difficult experience with an asthma attack, you may also have a common feeling of anxiety.

Asthma is typically diagnosed by a pulmonologist with the help of lung function testing and exam. Depending on the severity of your asthma, you will be placed on single or combination therapy consisting of inhalers, nebulizers, or pills.

Are Essential Oils Safe?

Many people believe that natural products are always safe for use. While some plant extracts can be safe, you shouldn't assume that all of them are. In fact, many plants have varying effects on your body. For example:

  • Cumin oil: safe in food, but can cause blistering if left on your skin.
  • Citrus oil: safe in food, but has varying degrees of safety. Citrus oil is particularly harmful in cosmetics if you are in direct sunlight.
  • Peppermint: a mint that is used safely to treat upset stomachs, however, the pennyroyal variety of mint is toxic to your liver.
  • Wintergreen: a common flavor used in gum, food, and pain relief products. While used safely in small amounts, consumption of a large amount induces symptoms like an aspirin overdose.
  • Sage, Eucalyptus, and Camphor: while sage can be used in small amounts in food, large amounts of sage or any ingestion of eucalyptus or camphor can cause seizures.

As you can see, natural occurring plant oils can be dangerous if not followed in a recommended manner. This is why many clinicians will discourage use of essential oils for treating illnesses, as there is very little scientific evidence to the benefits and risks associated with aromatherapy as a medical treatment.

Essential Oils and Asthma

Little is known as to whether or not essential oils are safe for treating asthma. Dr. Joy Hsu from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recommends that you never replace your prescribed therapies and always consult your physician before supplementing your medication regimen. Some common essential oils are claimed as helpful in treating asthma.

  • Chamomile comes in several varieties. It is most commonly used as an additive in tea. German chamomile is recognized for having antihistamine properties that may reduce inflammatory responses in your body. Roman chamomile has anti-spasm properties that are suggested as having potential to help reduce an asthma attack until emergency medications can be provided. Chamomile can cause drowsiness, so driving or operating heavy machinery should be avoided. It may also cause allergic reactions in people with a ragweed allergy.
  • Thyme is known for its relaxing effects. The relaxant properties are why some suggest that thyme can be used to relax airways in asthmatics by using in a tea. Avoid using thyme if you are pregnant or have sensitive skin.
  • Peppermint is considered a must-have in your aromatherapy collection for its variety of uses. It is commonly used in teas and in diffusers. Peppermint is considered to help you breath more naturally because of its antihistamine and decongestant effects. Peppermint contains menthol which is toxic if ingested in its pure form. Some report having an improvement in their lung function tests with inhaling peppermint oil, though this has not been studied or proven. Avoid use by young children.
  • Tea tree (also known as Melaleuca) is considered to be an expectorant by some aromatherapy practitioners. Expectorants thin secretions making it possible to cough up sputum more effectively. This may help improve breathing in an asthmatic. Use cautiously if you have sensitive skin.
  • Oregano is recognized for its antibacterial, antiviral, and immune-stimulating effects making it a choice for some in preventing asthma exacerbations related to a respiratory illness. It is most commonly used in a diffuser to aerosolize the oil. It is highly volatile and vaporizes quite easily. Do not use oregano if you have strong skin reactions.
  • Lavender is considered to be the best essential oil for beginners because of it's reported versatility. You should avoid driving if you use lavender, as it is known to have a relaxing/sedative effect. You should also avoid using lavender if you have a condition that is estrogen-dependent such as breast/uterine/ovarian cancer, endometriosis, or breast fibroids.
  • Clove is believed to relieve respiratory symptoms when used in a diffuser. However, care must be taken as clove can cause skin irritation if you have sensitive skin. You should also not use clove if you are pregnant or under the age of 6.
  • Cypress has a fresh wintergreen scent that has a wide variety of uses including relieving anger, easing tension, and improving circulation. It is also thought to help fight cold and flu-like symptoms, which could also then help relieve asthma exacerbations while sick. Do not use cypress if you are pregnant.

A Word From Verywell

The research on using essential oils or aromatherapy to treat asthma is very scant and unreliable. You should avoid using essential oils unless you discuss with your physician. While you may experience symptomatic relief and anecdotal improvement of symptoms, long-term effects of using aromatherapy have not been studied.

14 Sources
Verywell Health uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
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By Kristin Hayes, RN
Kristin Hayes, RN, is a registered nurse specializing in ear, nose, and throat disorders for both adults and children.