These herbal scents have antibacterial and antiviral properties, and they may help relieve symptoms like congestion and aches.
Natural remedies for cold and flu are always a popular topic, considering that there’s no real cure for either ailment. So as the temperature drops and people around you start sniffling, you may be wondering what you can do this season to protect yourself from catching whatever’s going around—or to feel better faster if you do get sick.
Using essential oils may be a part of that plan, says Amanda Lattin, chair of aromatherapy at the American College of Healthcare Sciences. (Let’s be clear: So is getting your flu shot, eating plenty of nutrient-rich fruits and veggies, and practicing common-sense hand hygiene and germ-prevention strategies.) Studies have shown that certain essential oils can kill bacteria, and some have even been tested against influenza and other viruses. Plus, Lattin adds, they can be helpful in relieving cold and flu symptoms.
“Some have been shown in research to limit the proliferation of certain viruses—but paired with their antibacterial action, that makes them really useful tools,” says Lattin. “That's because sometimes after a viral infection like the flu, you get a secondary bacterial infection, so it’s nice that there’s both of these therapeutic actions.”
Much of this research has been done on eucalyptus, rosemary, peppermint, lemon, tea tree, and cinnamon bark essential oils, Lattin says. But she stresses that most of the antibacterial and antiviral studies have been done in a lab setting—and there’s still not a lot of strong evidence to show exactly how these properties translate to real-life benefits.
“More research is needed to know exactly the dosage and duration and the best use for these situations,” says Lattin. “But luckily, essential oils have other therapeutic properties, so we can still use them and benefit from them even if we don’t know exactly how to cure pneumonia or influenza with them.”
So what do those therapeutic properties include? Some essential oils, like eucalyptus, can act as an expectorant and an anti-mucolytic—which means they can help dry up mucus and expel it from the respiratory system. “They can also lower inflammation, which happens very frequently during these types of infections, and they help stimulate our immune system,” says Lattin.
Studies also suggest that breathing in essential oils or applying them to your skin may help with other cold-and-flu-related ailments, like headaches and general aches and pains. “And we suspect that it may help you recover more quickly from your illness," says Lattin, "although that’s not something we can definitively say."
Lattin recommends combining four to six drops of various essential oils into a bowl with six to eight cups of boiling water, and then breathing in the steam for five to 10 minutes. (Be careful not to get too close or breathe in steam so hot that it burns your face or nasal passages.) “This is safe for most people unless they have a respiratory condition such as asthma, in which case they’d want to talk to their health care provider first,” says Lattin.
You can also use a diffuser to disperse essential oil vapors into a room where you’re resting. Lattin recommends doing this for half-hour intervals two to three times a day.
Applying essential oils to the throat or chest area can also help reduce cold or flu symptoms—but since they can be irritating to the skin if they’re not diluted properly, Lattin suggests purchasing an already mixed product (like a lotion containing essential oils) or having a professional prepare a product for you.
Bryan Combs, a certified nurse practitioner at the University of Alabama at Birmingham School of Nursing, agrees that essential oils can be part of a holistic plan for preventing or treating the common cold or influenza. “We have patients ask about alternative therapies quite a bit during cold and flu season, and aromatherapy is definitely one of them,” he says.
“I think essential oils can help with treating some symptoms, including aches and pains or coughing and congestion, especially if you’re the type of person who believes in it,” Combs says. “And if you’re able to decrease some of your symptoms and feel a little bit better, the body is going to be in a better state to heal itself.”
Combs tells patients that he supports the use of essential oils, “with the understanding that it’s probably not going to be the only thing they need to get better,” he says. It’s also important to follow all instructions for use and proper dilution, he adds, and to discontinue use if a product causes irritation or worsening of symptoms.
So what essential oil products should you try? For starters, look for oils that contain the plant’s Latin name, the country of origin, and the date of production on the label, says Lattin. Since the supplement industry is loosely regulated, it’s important to go with a brand that’s reputable and transparent about its ingredients and practices.
You can find essential oils in holistic health stores or buy them directly from a licensed aromatherapist. For online shoppers, here are some of the top-rated products on Amazon from trusted brands.