Essential Oils That Ease Bronchitis Symptoms and How to Use Them

Acute bronchitis, also called a chest cold, is a viral infection that causes inflammation of the bronchial tubes, which carry air into your lungs. It is usually caused by a virus, but it can sometimes be caused by bacteria. Acute bronchitis generally gets better on its own without antibiotics, so treatment involves resting while managing symptoms for about three weeks.

While over-the-counter (OTC) medications can help with bronchitis symptoms like coughing and congestion, some people are seeking natural alternatives to help with their symptoms, such as essential oils.

Close up of a woman smelling aromatherapy oil
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Essential Oils for Cough

Essential oils can help with coughing by soothing your sore throat. They are oils distilled from plants and contain the beneficial chemicals of the plant they are derived from. When choosing an essential oil, make sure it's a pure essential oil, not just a fragrant oil, which smells nice but doesn't have any of the compounds.

Eucalyptus Essential Oil

Eucalyptus oil has traditionally been used to treat upper respiratory ailments like bronchitis, pharyngitis, and sinusitis, say study authors who evaluated the antibacterial, antifungal, and antiviral potential of eight different species of eucalyptus. 

The oils' antimicrobial activity was tested against seven bacterial isolates (individual bacteria strains) in a disc diffusion and microbroth solution. Species E. bicostata had the best antiviral activity, but its activity diminished with decreasing essential oil concentration.

Geranium Essential Oil

Geranium oil is another well-researched essential oil. A systematic review of 34 randomized controlled trials (RCTs) with low risk of bias conducted on humans representing a general population (ages 1 to 86 years old) concluded that the geranium species P. sidoides reduces cough symptom duration and severity without serious adverse effects in adults. Positive effects in children were less clear.

Bergamot Essential Oil

Bergamot oil can be diffused to help fight the infection causing your cough. One study found bergamot oil with a concentration of 0.3% demonstrated 100% inhibition (inactivation) of H1N1 (influenza A virus) in the liquid phase, while the inhibition for lavender essential oil was 85%.

The study authors noted that oral consumption of oils is toxic, so they also tested antiviral activity with vapor diffusion of bergamot oil and it showed 95% H1N1 inhibition.

Lavender Essential Oil

Lavender (linanool) oil may have a calming effect on your airways, and researchers say it could be useful as an alternative medicine for bronchial asthma.

A study done in mice demonstrated linanool's activity in reducing inflammation related to an experimentally induced bronchial asthma (acute lung injury) in young mice. A similar study found that nebulizing lavender oil decreased airway inflammation in mice when they passively inhaled it.

Frankincense Essential Oil

Frankincense oil is promoted in natural health communities as a remedy for reducing pain and swelling.

One animal study found that frankincense oil's active ingredients (including α-pinene, linalool, and 1-octanol) exhibit significant anti-inflammatory and pain-reducing effects when used topically. Mice treated with frankincense oil extract exhibited greater and faster lessening of swelling and pain than mice treated with frankincense water extract. This is not specific to bronchitis, however.

In vitro antimicrobial activity studies on the plant compounds in essential oils continue to increase, but researchers say human trials have not increased to the same extent. They noted that components of 1,8‐cineole (eucalyptus) or menthol (mint) have been extensively used in human experiments, though. 

Essential Oils for Chest Congestion

Chest congestion is caused by mucus in the lungs and the lower bronchi (breathing tubes). Easing chest congestion comes down to helping your body release the mucus from your lungs and reducing mucus production. Essential oils that act as expectorants (helping to thin the mucus, making it easier to cough up) may be particularly useful for acute bronchitis.

Rosemary Essential Oil

Rosemary oil has many traditional aromatic and therapeutic uses. An in vivo study tested the chemical composition of rosemary oil against bacteria and cancer activity on cancer cell lines using three lab tests: the micro-dilution method, the crystal violet test, and an MTT assay.

Thirty-six compounds were found, including 1,8-cineole (23.56%) and camphene (12.78%). The oil was effective against two bacteria strains (Staphylococcus aureus ATCC 9144 and Staphylococcus epidermidis S61) and showed promoting inhibitory behavior against biofilm growth. Biofilm refers to a collection of one or more types of microorganisms that can grow on different surfaces. The study authors argue that rosemary oil could help in the treatment of infections by microorganisms and destruction of cancer cells.

It's important to note, though, that the study does not address chest congestion, and the bacteria that were investigated are not usually present in bronchitis.

Eucalyptus Essential Oil

Eucalyptus oil is used in herbal medicine in the treatment of bronchitis, sinus infection, and other upper respiratory issues. A review study of randomized, placebo-controlled trials found strong evidence for using the main constituent of eucalyptus oil (1,8-cineole) for respiratory problems.

Preclinical studies in both in vivo (performed in living organisms like animals and humans) and in vitro (performed in a test tube or culture dish, outside of a living organism) models from healthy human subjects were compared with patients with asthma and in animals and reported a steroid-like inhibitory effect after taking 200 milligrams of 1,8-cineole capsules (Soledum forte capsules) three times a day for 14 days.

Sandalwood Essential Oil

Sandalwood is a staple of herbal medicine remedies across cultures and traditions. For example, it is used in Ayurvedic medicine to treat bronchitis and in traditional Chinese medicine to treat chest pain. It is sold as a remedy for upper respiratory tract infection when diffused or applied topically, and sandalwood oil is one of the more expensive essential oils. Research has yet to show the effects of sandalwood on bronchitis, though.

Hyssop Essential Oil

Traditions suggest hyssop can be used to help clear the mucus that is contributing to your chest congestion and act as a cough suppressant, but research hasn't produced evidence to support that claim.

One study on 32 mice with chronic asthma tested hyssop oil's anti-inflammatory potential by dividing mice into four groups (normal, chronic asthmatic, dexamethasone treatment or glucocorticoid medication, and Hyssopus officinalis L. treatment groups).

Researchers found that mice in the hyssop treatment group showed similar results to the observed normal group. It may, therefore, not have an effect on bronchitis.

Thyme Essential Oil

Thyme essential oil is made from volatile plant compounds, including thymol. You can find thymol (which is also a plant compound in other herbs) in over-the-counter cold and cough preparations. The Hazardous Substances Data Bank confirms that thymol is toxic to microorganisms but generally safe for humans in existing preparations.

Thymol has shown such promising anti-inflammatory and antibacterial properties that it is in an active ingredient in the drug Bronchosol, which contains the extracts of thyme and primrose with the addition of thymol. Researchers say Bronchosol is comparable to synthetic ambroxol and its safety has been proved.

Antiviral Essential Oils

Some essential oils can offer us a natural alternative in the fight against viruses. These oils are typically pungent, with strong aromas.

Whenever you think you or a loved one might have a viral infection, talk to your doctor before reaching for the essential oils. That way, you can ensure you’re treating the right health concern with the best method.

Tea Tree Essential Oil

Tea tree oil (TTO) is a well-known skin and beauty care ingredient in a range of products promoted to help reduce acne and blemishes. TTOs' antiviral activity on surfaces has been well documented, but researchers also tested the oil, along with eucalyptus oil, in aerosol and vapor states to determine the range of its benefits. Both tested oils' aerosols possessed strong antiviral action and were capable of inactivating model viruses with an efficiency of more than 95% within five to 15 minutes of exposure.

Eucalyptus Essential Oil

A systematic review of essential oils in the treatment or prevention of COVID-19 suggests that eucalyptus essential oil may be useful due to demonstrated and well-recognized antiviral properties.

Researchers reviewed articles from peer-reviewed journals, books, theses, dissertations, various patents, and supplementary reports covering anti-SARS-CoV-2 properties of traditionally used essential oils. They concluded that eucalyptus oil in vapor form, with its primary compounds citronellol and eugenol, has rapid-acting in vitro antiviral properties against influenza A.

Oregano Essential Oil

Oregano oil, like thyme oil, has significant concentrations of the antiviral plant compounds known as carvacrol and thymol. One in vivo study tested oregano oil against infected cells and found dose-dependent properties that stop the replication of HIV cells (inhibit their growth). Study results were consistent across several formulations (different brands) of oregano oil.

Research on essential oils (EOs) is promising, but keep in mind that in vitro animal studies and in vivo studies testing oils and their plant compounds in controlled lab settings do not fully represent real-world results. This means there are many other factors in your life (including your general health condition and sensitivity to plant compounds) that can contribute to how well (or whether) EOs will be beneficial for your respiratory issues. Before trying any self-medication at home, talk to a doctor for a personalized recommendation.

How to Use Essential Oils Safely

Essential oils offer a natural alternative to cough medicines, but they are not without their own risks. Some of the very same essential oils used to help relieve cough and chest congestion, like eucalyptus or tea tree oil, can also be irritating to your skin, sinuses, and airways.

You may not always know the potential risks involved from reading the label because essential oil labeling is not regulated.

Essential oils contain bioactive ingredients that can be harmful to humans, pets, and plant life. Consuming even small amounts can be toxic, especially to children. Always keep them out of reach of children and store them with the lids tightly screwed. Use with caution and only as advised by a trusted source. When in doubt, talk to your healthcare provider.

Good practices for using essential oils safely include:

  • Dilute with a carrier oil: Make sure you blend the essential oil with a carrier oil like coconut, jojoba, or almond before applying it to your skin. This helps you spread the oil evenly and promotes better absorption.
  • Patch-test with new oils: If you’re new to an oil and don't know if you’re allergic, do a small patch test first. If irritation, rash, or other adverse reactions occur, don't use the oil. 
  • Talk to your doctor: If you’re pregnant or nursing, talk to your doctor about which oils you are using, what they’re used for, overall safety, and best recommendations for which oils may be helpful for your specific symptoms or needs.
  • Know the risks: Many essential oils can be poisonous if absorbed through the skin or swallowed. Common examples include eucalyptus, wintergreen, and nutmeg. Essential oils can also interact with other medications or supplements. 

Not every cough and cold will react the same to your treatment. If essential oils are not helping with your symptoms, talk to your doctor about other treatment options.

If someone accidentally swallows any amount of essential oil or a product containing essential oils, immediately call 911 or the Poison Center (800-222-1222).

A Word From Verywell

With so many essential oils and essential oil blends available, it can be difficult to know where to start. It's recommended that you get organically grown and harvested oils.

The common oils used for bronchitis and its symptoms are those with antiviral properties that help fight against infection and have anti-inflammatory benefits. While many animal studies have shown that essential oils may help with cough and congestion, you should still talk to your doctor before beginning at-home or self-treatment with essential oils. The plant compounds in each oil are potent and could be dangerous if not used properly.

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