Essential oils for cough
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If running to the doctor at the first sign of a sniffle has been your M.O. in recent years, it may be time to take a second look at natural ways to relieve your cold symptoms this winter. After all, this year’s cold and flu season has been one of the worst, and chances are you or one of your family members will get struck by a bug before season’s end.

With the swarm of pharmacies than line today’s strip malls, it might be surprising to learn that more than 80 percent of the worldwide population is dependent on using traditional, plant-based medicines to treat various illnesses, including the common cold. Essential oils are a key part of plant-based medicine. Over 7,000 plants have been identified as having curative properties. Of those plants, 1,500 species are favored for their pleasant aroma and flavor; many of these plants are used to make potent essential oils.

How Essentials Oils Work To Fight Colds

The complex compounds found in essential oils—namely aldehydes, phenolics, terpenes, and other antimicrobial properties—work to destroy the following types of foreign invaders in your body:

  • Bacteria (e.g., salmonella, tetanus, E. coli, and bacterial meningitis)
  • Fungi (e.g., athlete’s foot, yeast infections, and ringworm)
  • Viruses (e.g., herpes, mumps, measles, and the flu)

In many cases, essential oils are able to penetrate through the membranes of cells walls, disrupting the functioning of bacteria, fungi, and viruses. Ultimately, this leads to the disintegration of the membrane and the death of the foreign cell.

Essential oils are made from various parts of a plant, including the flowers, leaves, bark, rind, and roots. Aromatherapy practitioners believe that the unique, natural fragrances found in essential oils stimulate the nerves in the nasal passages, sending impulses to brain regions that control memory and emotion. This, in turn, elicits a therapeutic effect on the body, particularly during times of weakness or illness. Certain oils have a stimulating effect on the body while others have a calming effect.

Researchers believe essential oils interact with your body’s hormones and enzymes. This interaction may cause the following changes to occur:

  • Pulse fluctuations
  • Blood pressure fluctuations
  • A surge in pain-fighting substances produced by the body

The essential oils discussed in this article better equip the body to fight infection as they bolster the immune system.

Types of Cold-Busting Essential Oils

Lemon Balm Oil for Cold Symptom Relief

Lemon Balm Oil for Cold Symptom Relief

This uplifting, citrusy essential oil contains antibacterial, anti-inflammatory, and antiviral properties. It may be particularly helpful in combating the symptoms of sinusitis. In a recent study, lemon balm oil was even found to suppress the replication of the avian flu virus.

Take care when using lemon balm oil as it may cause skin sensitivities and irritation in some people. It is also photogenic, meaning it generates light and can be reactive to sunlight, so stay indoors when using this oil topically.

Eucalyptus Oil for Cold Symptom Relief

Eucalyptus Oil for Cold Symptom Relief

The cool, stimulating effects of eucalyptus oil are favored by many essential oil enthusiasts. This oil is effective in reducing inflammation in the body, minimizing inflamed tissues in the sinuses. For this reason, eucalyptus oil acts as a powerful decongestant.

Health experts recommend steam inhalation to get the most benefit from this oil. Try putting five to 10 drops in hot bath water as you relax and soak up the steam. You may also try preparing the mixture in a medium-sized bowl; place on a table or counter and sit over the steaming water for 10–15 minutes, slowly inhaling the cooling, clearing scents.

Eucalyptus oil minimizes the symptoms of a cough by loosening phelgm—it is a natural expectorant (no cough syrup needed). What’s more, this oils also helps to relieve muscle and joint pain. If you’ve been struck by the flu bug or a long-lasting cold this year, you know firsthand just how nice soothing sore muscles must feel, so get your hands on some eucalyptus oil to ease your aching muscles and joints.

You can use fresh eucalyptus leaves in a gargle to help treat sore throats, chronic bronchitis, and sinusitis. Or you can try dried eucalyptus leaves in a tea; simply add boiling water to two to three tablespoons of leaves and let steep for 10–15 minutes.

Never, ever swallow eucalyptus oil as it can lead to severe vomiting, seizures, and may even result in death. Only use eucalyptus oil topically or through steam inhalation—this is one oil you really need to use with caution.

Rosemary Oil for Cold Symptom Relief

Rosemary Oil for Cold Symptom Relief

With its soothing, earthy aroma, rosemary has long been used to alleviate coughs and colds. It is particularly effective in fighting resistant strains of bacteria that cause chronic congestion, such as Streptococcus pneumoniae (the bacteria that causes pneumonia). A study published in the journal, Molecules, indicated rosemary oil also minimizes the growth of some strains of E. coli, a type of bacteria that leads to severe gastrointestinal illness.

In addition to its bacteria-fighting powers, rosemary also has antifungal properties that inhibit fungal pathogens with their phenolic compounds. These compounds work to disrupt fungal cell membranes, minimizing symptoms of fungal infections.

For a topical preparation, try blending rosemary with lemon and eucalyptus oils—and the carrier oil of your choice, of course—to help relieve congestion from a cold. This effective blend is relaxing and restorative in nature, and sure to be a fast favorite.

Do not use rosemary if you are pregnant or suffer from high blood pressure or epilepsy.

Thyme Oil for Cold Symptom Relief

Thyme Oil for Cold Symptom Relief

Thyme oil wards off the following types of bacteria:

  • Salmonella typhi (typhoid fever)
  • Staphylococcus aureus (staph infection)
  • Pseudomonas aeruginosa (an antibiotic-resistant infection)

In addition to combating these nasty bacterial infections, research studies show that thyme oil also inhibits food-borne pathogens like E. coli. This finding suggests thyme oil might have a future role in food preservation.

Use thyme oil to relieve colds and congestion. Try mixing thyme with lemon and tea tree oils for an invigorating combination that’s sure to soothe your senses.

Avoid thyme oil altogether if you have high blood pressure or suffer from severe skin sensitivities, such as eczema.

Tea Tree Oil for Cold Symptom Relief

Tea Tree Oil for Cold Symptom Relief

It may not be familiar to you yet, but tea tree oil has been used for over 100 years in Australia. It is known for its antiseptic and anti-inflammatory properties. Antiseptic means a substance is able to prevent the growth of microorganisms that cause disease. One study showed that tea tree oil effectively eliminated antibacterial-resistant staph infections in hospital patients. This finding points to the potency and effectiveness of tea tree oil in fighting bacteria.

Because tea tree oils contain both antiviral and antimicrobial properties, it is especially helpful for those suffering from the symptoms of seasonal allergies, such as sinus congestion and red, itchy eyes.

Tea tree oil can be used interchangeably with eucalyptus oil as their properties are very similar. Both these essential oils are powerful expectorants and help to reduce the symptoms of cold and congestion. Like eucalyptus oil, steam inhalation is the most effective way to use tea tree oil.

How to Use Essential Oils to Treat Colds

How to Use Essential Oils to Treat Colds

You can use essential oils to treat your cold symptoms using one of the following methods:

  1. Try them topically. Applying essential oils around the nose, mouth, and throat areas can be extra comforting during a cold. Just be sure to dilute your oils with carrier oils, such as coconut, avocado, or jojoba, as essential oils are volatile substances on their own. They must be combined with milder oils to avoid skin irritations.
  2. Enjoy some aromatherapy. Invest in a diffuser; fill up the device with water as indicated in the directions, then add two to four drops of your favorite oil. Let the aroma slowly disperse around your living room, bedroom, or office as you inhale the soothing scent.
  3. Soothe your cold with steam inhalation. You can try this at-home treatment option by adding five to 10 drops of your go-to essential oil to a tub of warm water. You may also wish to sit over a bowl of hot water infused with an essential oil.
  4. Opt to take a few drops orally. Some essential oils that are purchased with FDA clearance can be taken by mouth (sparingly, of course). However, it is never safe to take eucalyptus oil using this method. Only use eucalyptus oil topically or through steam inhalation.

Although essential oils have carved out a place for themselves in Western medicine, you should note that unlike pharmaceuticals, the quality of essential oil formulations is not standardized. This means concentrations of their active ingredients might be different from bottle to bottle or from brand to brand. The composition of essential oils is dependent on everything from weather conditions to the time of day the plants were harvested. If you’re going to splurge on anything, let it be essential oils—we assure you that investing in the safest, most reputable brands will be worth your while.

For more information on safety precautions and other uses of essential oils, read Essential Oils: How to Use Them and What They’re Used For.


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Carson CF, Hammer KA, Riley TV. Melaleuca alternifolia (tea tree) oil: a review of antimicrobial and other medicinal properties. Clin Microbiol Rev. 2006;19(1):50-62. doi:10.1128/CMR.19.1.50-62.2006.

American Sinus Institute. Eight essential oils that can help relieve your sinus congestion. Accessed February 22, 2018. 

Naprawa AZ, Berkeley Wellness. Essential oils: what you should know. Updated March 2016. Accessed February 22, 2018.