Essential Oils for Asthma: Separating Myth From Fact
Note: Please always talk to your asthma doctor before changing/adding any treatments.
Have you ever wished for a “more natural approach” to treating your child’s or your own asthma than potentially harmful man-made medications? I know I have. Have you ever considered using essential oils for asthma?
Many claims exist about how effective essential oils are in treating asthma and even preventing asthma attacks. You can find evidence of these claims in online blogs, in news articles and on the websites of essential oil companies and their representatives, not to mention everywhere in social media.
But are they true? And are essential oils safe to use for asthma, just because they’re deemed “natural”? Those are good questions, and ones I will do my best to answer in this post. Let’s separate myth from fact when it comes to essential oils and asthma.
Asthma is a chronic respiratory condition, for which there is no cure. It’s true that the symptoms sometimes do disappear over time in a few lucky people. But for most of us, asthma is a lifelong condition.
Asthma is a condition where the lung tissue becomes inflamed, meaning it swells, narrows and may produce mucus. This is most often in response to environmental substances called allergens. Allergens include things like:
- Tree, grass and weed pollen
- Indoor and outdoor molds
- Pet dander, saliva and urine
- Insect droppings
- Dust mites
Not everyone who has asthma has the allergic type. Some people find their asthma symptoms are triggered by things such as air pollution, chemical fumes, perfume and sawdust.
Whatever the triggers may be, the symptoms are the same:
- A chronic, but intermittent, dry cough
- Chest tightness
- Shortness of breath
Understanding essential oils
Essential oils are substances derived from various types of plants, most often from steaming or pressing them. These oils tend to have strong aromas. Plants and their byproducts have been used throughout time for various purposes. Originally billed as folk medicine, supplements and essential oils derived from plants are now referred to as holistic or complementary or alternative medicine.
These oils have been used to flavor food, in beverages, and in cosmetics. More recently, they’ve been touted for use through inhalation and in massage oil. Some companies even produce oils labeled as “therapeutic” or “food grade,” which means they are supposedly safe to ingest orally too.
Essential oils can be found in local stores, such as Natural Grocers. They are also sold online and through network marketing company representatives.
Essential oil claims
If you’re an essential oil “true believer,” please don’t get your back up about the subhead above. I titled this section as claims, because the fact is, most of what you read about essential oils is just that: claims, rather than scientifically-proven facts.
That doesn’t mean the claims are false; it just means there’s a lot we still don’t know for sure about how essential oils work and how they might, or might not, help with asthma and other medical conditions. Sure, there are countless anecdotal stories and testimonials, but these are not scientific proof.
Having said all that, here are a few essential oils most commonly claimed to possibly help with asthma:
- Lemon (often used in combination with the 2 oils above)
- Tea tree oil
Rest assured that you will find numerous articles that refer to research studies suggesting that these oils help with things such as:
- respiratory infections
Keep in mind, though, that very few of these studies are U.S.-based, done with humans or with significant numbers of participants. Nor do they constitute what is known as “peer-reviewed scientific research.” This means1:
“Peer-reviewed (refereed or scholarly) journals – Articles are written by experts and are reviewed by several other experts in the field before the article is published in the journal in order to insure the article’s quality.”
Peer-reviewed research is more likely to be scientifically valid and to reach reasonable conclusions. The studies also use double-blind methodology, where half of the participants unknowingly use a placebo or no treatment, to see if the differences are statistically significant.
For this reason, I don’t link here to any of those studies. As a health care professional, I’m not confident that they contain enough evidence to back up the claims.
The Asthma and Allergy Foundation of America, a well-regarded resource for asthma information, states clearly that: “There is no evidence that essential oils can help asthma. In fact, breathing in the particles released by the oils may trigger an asthma attack.”2
How are essential oils used for asthma?
Essential oils are most often used as aromatherapy in asthma. This means that you would either place the oils, alone or in combination, in a diffuser that aerosolizes the oil into the air you breathe. You can also place a drop or two on your palm and breathe in the fumes.
In some cases, essential oils can also be mixed with a carrier oil such as sweet almond oil or jojoba oil. This mixture is then massaged into the skin of the chest or on the soles of the feet.
Are essential oils safe to use for asthma?
Essential oils may or may not treat some of the symptoms of asthma. There just is not enough valid research to know for sure. But, are they safe to use?
Well, here’s the deal. They may not be. Is your asthma triggered by breathing in strong fumes? If so, you might find that essential oils trigger your symptoms, rather than relieving them. Some oils can also be irritating to the skin.3
Essential oils should never be used for young children, without first consulting with your pediatrician.
The other thing to keep in mind is that essential oils are not regulated in any way. This means their safety for human use is not guaranteed. Quality of oils can vary greatly, depending on who makes them. Just because they are labeled “natural” or “organic” doesn’t mean they are safe. There are no regulations for using those terms.
Essential oils do not replace traditional medicine
Essential oils may have some potential in asthma treatment in certain people. But they should never be used to replace asthma medication, especially in more severe asthma. The best ways to manage asthma are4:
- Avoid your asthma triggers the best you can.
- Take asthma medicines, such as inhaled steroids to prevent symptoms.
- Be ready to treat asthma episodes if they occur with a rescue, or quick-relief, inhaler.
I know some people believe that doctors who recommend prescription medications over “natural” alternatives are ruled by “Big Pharma” and the government. And it’s true that in the U.S., pharmaceutical companies do exert tremendous influence on health care, regulations and even the government. But it’s also true that asthma experts worldwide have concluded that the approach listed in the bullets above is the best, most effective, way to achieve asthma control and prevent disability and death.
So, if you opt to try essential oils for your asthma, do it only after consulting with your doctor, and as an add-on to whatever treatment you are already using. There might be some value for you, as long as you are an adult.
I will tell you, though, that at the behest of a friend, I tried a mixture of lemon, lavender and peppermint oils (inhaled) to treat my allergic asthma a few years ago. I loved the aromas, and I did not have any allergic reaction, even though I am quite sensitive to perfumes. But the oils also did not help my asthma at all. I know you will hear different results from other people, but that was my experience. I truly wish the essential oils had helped me.
The fact is essential oils might help treat some of the symptoms of asthma. They certainly may be effective at relaxing you and relieving stress. Perhaps, in some cases, they could help with other symptoms too. Or they might not. We just don’t know. And they could be harmful to your asthma as well.
So, if you decide to try essential oils for asthma, check in with your health care team first. And then proceed with caution. Source them from a company that has stringent quality standards that you trust. Try them out, one oil at a time, in very small quantities, to see how you respond. And always keep taking your daily asthma medication as prescribed, plus keep your rescue inhaler close at hand!
This article represents the opinions, thoughts, and experiences of the author; none of this content has been paid for by any advertiser. The Asthma.net team does not recommend or endorse any products or treatments discussed herein. Learn more about how we maintain editorial integrity here.