Essential Oils. Can They Help People with Lung Conditions?
Updated: Sep 22, 2019
For thousands of years, people have been using essential oils to help with various medical conditions and aliments. So, what is an essential oil? Well, they are aromatic, concentrated plant extracts that are obtained through steam distillation, cold pressing, or resin tapping. Lately, it seems like they are “all the rage” and I am seeing them in everything from dish detergent to shampoo to air fresheners. The molecules are said to affect the nervous system, different parts of the brain, hormones, metabolism and other body functions. Interesting huh?! So I was curious, can they help people with chronic lung conditions breathe easier with less breathlessness and/or reduce the number of flare-ups that can tend to plague them throughout the year. When I put feelers out on my personal Facebook page to see if I could get more insight on these puppies, I got a ton of quick responses. I found out by asking around that there are many people that LOVE essential oils and what they believe are their benefits. However, what you won’t find is a lot of scientific evidence on their benefits. Using essential oils is definitely a natural form of therapy and thus there isn’t a ton of research to support it, yet believers are believers and quite frankly manufacturers seem to be putting them in everything, so it definitely has me curious as to whether they work or not.
Let me start out by saying this. I am a little nervous to endorse the use of essential oils by asthmatics or for people with highly reactive airways to perfumes. When I asked a few people that sold different essential oils, they couldn’t give me any insight on whether or not it was safe for asthma patients. As a respiratory therapist, I am highly aware that many people with asthma and reactive airways have to be very careful of triggers that can cause their airways in layman’s terms “to close up.” In fact, when I did a little research with the Asthma and Allergy Foundation of America, I found that their position on essential oils is that “there is no evidence that essential oils can help asthma. In fact, breathing in the particles may even trigger and asthma attack.” If you do have asthma and try essential oils, what they recommend is that you try them out in between attacks, not while you are having one. Essential oils are NOT a substitute for your airway medications. The other thing I would recommend to asthmatics (as well as anyone else with a chronic lung condition) is to always check with your doctor first before starting something new. Typically using a conservative approach is the best way for things not to “backfire” on you. Lastly, many of the essential oil guru’s that I talked to said that if you should try essential oils that you try them one at a time. A few companies are marketing “respiratory combos” and if you try the combo first, you may not be able to recognize which one you have a sensitivity to and which ones you do well with.
With my position on essential oils for asthmatics and people with reactive airways, you would think that I am completely against them… right? On the contrary. I LOVE the idea of natural holistic medicine for assistance in treating many different conditions. COPD, pulmonary fibrosis, bronchiectasis, and emphysema are some conditions that I feel may receive some benefits in using essential oils.
So how do you use them?
Well each brand and as well as each type of essential oil is different from the next. If you buy a concentrated (pure) oil, there are some things that you need to remember. First of all, never inhale the oil directly from the bottle. Most essential oil gurus recommend the use a diffuser or steam to disperse the essential oil in the air or it can be as easy as placing a few drops on a cotton ball near an air vent. Some of the essential oils can be used topically (which reminds me of when I was a kid and would get an occasional chest cold and my mom would rub Vicks VapoRub on my chest). When it comes to ingesting essential oils, again, I am leery. You really need to find out if they could possibly interact with any other medications that you are taking by talking to your doctor and pharmacist first before you even think about going that route.
So, what oils may benefit a person with a lung condition?
1. Eucalyptus Oil – Eucalyptus has been used for years in salves like Vick’s VapoRub. Eucalyptus oil is said to have antimicrobial effects as well as the ability to help reduce inflammation, relieve pain, and ease muscle tension. Eucalyptus oil can also be helpful for lung conditions that have more congestion issues by working as a decongestant and expectorant.
2. Peppermint Oil (menthol) – Menthol is best known for creating that cooling sensation. Peppermint oil can soothe a scratchy throat and can possibly relax bronchial smooth muscle.
3. Frankincense and Myrrh oil – As I sit here blogging… I wonder what a “wise man” would say. (Okay, bad joke!) But yes, that is the first things I thought of. Actually Frankincense, a fruity scent, is said to be helpful to relieve a bad cough associated with bronchitis. Myrrh, a dark piney scent, is said to be a great antiseptic and has wonderful anti-inflammatory properties.
4. Lavender- When I think about lavender, I think of calming and soothing as many of the bedtime baths and lotions contain this very ingredient. However, for lung patients this oil also acts as an antioxidant with helps the body fight the progression of certain lung diseases. There have been some studies with lavender, one that really interested me involving mice. They found in this study that lavender oil might suppress inflammation of mucous in the respiratory system thus being helpful to some chronic bronchitis, COPD, and bronchiectasis patients.
5. Bergamot oil – This oil contains camphene, a substance similar to camphor. Camphene can have a cooling effect. It has antioxidant properties to help the lungs ward off infections and also offers analgesic properties reducing the discomfort caused by coughing. It helps to boost mood therefore reducing negative emotions and stress that can make people with lung conditions feel more short of breath.
I definitely see the appeal for many (and other) essential oil properties. One of the things that I have learned while working with people with chronic conditions is that many of my patients do not want to add another pill or medication to there “list.” I think essential oils may have a place in ongoing treatment and therapy for lung conditions, but I am cautious because I know that each person can react differently and may or may not get benefit from these oils. Have any of you tried essential oils? Comment below and share your thoughts.
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