When I have a bad cold, there’s nothing I won’t try to ease the congestion and cough. Ask my roommate: A couple of years ago, he walked in on me hunched over a pot of boiling water, Betty Boop beach towel shrouding my head, hacking away as I breathed in the steam. (Hey, my mom said it might help!)
The point is, when I’m feeling under the weather, I’m always looking for the best fix. So when I read that essential oils could be used to ease a cough, I was intrigued.
“Many essential oils can act as decongestants and expectorants, relieving congestion and clearing phlegm,” says Valerie Oula, director of vibrational energy at The Well, a membership-based wellness club. “There are specific essential oils that are mucolytic, breaking down mucus, as well as those that help soothe lungs.” Research confirms the benefits. Some oils have been shown to relax the muscles around your trachea, easing the spasms that can make you cough to provide relief.
It pays to be careful, though. Essential oils can cause issues like burns if you don’t properly dilute them with a carrier oil such as jojoba, almond, coconut, or olive. The safest way to use them is via a diffuser, says Oula. Your machine’s instruction manual should indicate how many drops to add, but a safe ratio is 20 drops of oil to 4 oz. of water. Let the diffuser run for 30 to 60 minutes.
Here are the most powerful aromatic options to bring out the next time you feel a little tickle.
Eucalyptus essential oil
Breathing in this oil can help loosen phlegm to ease congestion, Oula says. In a study of 60 people with upper respiratory tract infections, those who inhaled a spray containing the oil of aromatic herbs including eucalyptus reported a greater improvement in the severity of their symptoms than a placebo group did. You might find the smell familiar — it’s an ingredient in Vicks VapoRub, a famous cold soother.
Tea tree essential oil
This has become a favorite of Kiara LeBlanc, the chief innovation & brand officer at Saje Natural Wellness, which sells essential oils. “Similar to eucalyptus, it’s a great essential oil for clearing and supporting your breathing,” she says.
Cinnamon essential oil
When you’re sick, cinnamon can feel like “a warm hug,” LeBlanc says. A study in the journal Trends in Food Science & Technology found that breathing in the scent may benefit the respiratory tract, protecting it against bacteria that can make you sick.
Rosemary essential oil
Researchers believe that this oil’s anti-inflammatory effects can relax the muscles in your trachea. It’s used to treat cough, colds, fever, bronchitis, and nasal congestion in Traditional Chinese Medicine.
Nutmeg essential oil
A 2016 scientific review found that nutmeg is chock-full of anti-inflammatory compounds called monoterpenes. Other research has indicated that essential oil monoterpenes may help ease symptoms of bronchitis, a condition associated with airway inflammation.
Frankincense essential oil
This aromatic oil has been used for centuries to treat illness, and a study in the Journal of Traditional and Complementary Medicine indicates that it may contain antibacterial compounds. Oula likes to use the oil to soothe a cough. “I like adding an uplifting citrus like sweet orange or mandarin to a Frankincense blend,” Oula says.
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