Can I Use Essential Oils to Treat My Asthma Symptoms?

Curated by Claudia Shannon / Research Scientist / ishonest

Essential oils: The basics

Steaming or pressing plants releases aroma-rich oils. These oils contain the odor and flavor of the plants. They are often referred to as the plant’s essence.

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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.

Essential oils give off an essence. 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.

What the research says

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.

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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.

Some essential oils have an anti-inflammatory action and may be beneficial for treating asthma in some people.

Most quality, peer-reviewed studies exclusively examined and analyzed the potential of essential oils as aromatherapy options. Essential oils should never be the main treatment for asthma. For some people, aromatherapy may trigger symptoms.

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However, several oils have shown potential as alternative treatments for asthma symptoms:

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:

  1. Mix 2 to 3 drops of an essential oil in an ounce 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.
  2. Spread the oil combination on your chest and inhale the scent for 15 to 20 minutes.
  3. Wipe clean.
  4. Repeat daily as needed.
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If you’re using lavender essential oil, consider inhaling steam.

  1. Fill a bucket or bowl with steaming water.
  2. Add 2 to 3 drops of the lavender essential oil to the water and gently stir.
  3. 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.
  4. Inhale deeply for 5 to 10 minutes.
  5. Take a break for a few minutes and then repeat 2 to 3 more times.

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.

Essential oil diffusers may release volatile organic compounds, which can worsen asthma symptoms.

Essential oils might trigger an attack. You should also make sure that adding essential oils won’t interfere with your plan for controlling your asthma.

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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. Contact your doctor before you use this alternative treatment again.

Don’t consume essential oils. 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:

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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.

Inhalers

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. Learn more about rescue inhalers.

Allergy medications

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 prevent the respiratory distress that’s caused by stress or anxiety.

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Buteyko breathing is helpful 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

During an attack, first reach for an inhaler, then seek medical treatment if symptoms do not subside.

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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 tell you 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.

Ask questions

Don’t be afraid to talk with your doctor or a nurse. Many healthcare providers 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 contact your doctor.

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