Essential oils are everywhere. Peppermint, lavender, lemon, rosemary, tea tree … people have embraced a whole range of essential oils. Maybe (probably?) a friend or a friend-of-a-friend has even asked you to buy some.
Proponents swear by their favorites, saying they help them feel calmer or more energized, or they count on the oils to help them avoid succumbing to the latest virus floating through the air. But how useful could these highly scented oils be when it might come to helping the health of your lungs?
Maybe not so much. Experts say the role is pretty limited.
“There just isn’t a sufficient body of evidence to support their routine use for the promotion of lung health,” says Russell Buhr, MD, assistant clinical professor of medicine in the division of pulmonary and critical care at the David Geffen School of Medicine at UCLA in California.
David Beuther, MD, a pulmonologist at National Jewish Health in Denver, Colorado, agrees: “They don’t appear to have much of any therapeutic benefit, so they’re not going to help you.”
Boost lung health with a humidifier. Dry air can wreak havoc on your nose and lungs and make existing conditions, like asthma and dry throat, worse.
But if you don’t have any existing lung issues, you don’t need to worry too much about the oil diffuser in your living room or a few drops of oil on your skin. External use of an essential oil probably won’t put you at risk for anything, unless you happen to have allergies.
So, if the scent of lavender wafting through the air helps you relax and unwind—and you don’t notice any other problems—it’s probably OK, Buhr says.
But, wait: If you have an existing lung condition like asthma, read this.
However, if you have a lung condition, hold up. Lung health experts are more cautious about the use of essential oils by people who have lung conditions like asthma or chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD).
According to Melanie Carver, vice president of community health services for the Asthma and Allergy Foundation of America, the evidence that essential oils could help asthma just isn’t there.
“In fact, breathing in the particles released by the oils may actually trigger airway inflammation and asthma symptoms,” she says. “The strong odors emitted by essential oils may contain volatile organic compounds, or VOCs. VOCs are chemical gases that worsen air quality and can irritate the lungs.”
Adds Neha Solanki, MD, a pulmonologist with the Cleveland Clinic Asthma Center in Ohio, “Specifically, diffused eucalyptus and lavender release terpene, toluene and benzene. We know that these compounds have respiratory side effects. For example, terpene can cause shortness of breath, chest tightness and wheezing.”
Fragrance is indeed on the list of common asthma triggers, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), along with tobacco smoke, smoke from burning wood or plants, mold, pets, dust mites and air pollution.
So, if you have asthma, you could unintentionally trigger an asthma attack by breathing one of those oils that’s been warmed up and diffused through the air.
Lack of regulation
Doctors regularly cite the lack of regulation as another reason to be cautious about using essential oils. “These products are largely not regulated by the Food and Drug Administration, so there is no way to confirm what’s in the bottle is what they say is in the bottle,” says Buhr.
You could be getting a very diluted oil or one that’s much more concentrated—and it’s hard to know, adds Beuther. You might not be able to get the exact same concentration of the same oil from purchase to purchase.
That’s a big contrast to the medications that your pulmonologist will prescribe for you, says Solanki. “The medications that physicians use for asthma treatment are backed by the FDA,” she says. “This means that there are numerous clinical trials that have proven the safety and efficacy of the medications prescribed by medical professionals.”
“In addition to,” not “instead of”
But perhaps you have asthma and you’ve found that diffusing an essential oil in your home actually does make you feel better. Experts tend to agree that stress and anxiety can worsen chronic conditions like asthma and COPD. And some small studies have shown that stress reduction efforts can help people improve control over their asthma, notes Beuther.
It’s possible that using an essential oil might reduce some of your stress, which makes you feel calmer. In turn, that makes you feel like you’re breathing easier. However, he added, the oils don’t address the underlying condition, like your regular medications do. But some doctors may give you the nod to use essential oils in your home as long as you consistently use your regular medications.
In other words, don’t leave your inhaler at home. Don’t forego one of your prescribed medications for an essential oil treatment. Your doctor may give you a green light for the complementary use of essential oils if you don’t experience any adverse effects—as long as you don’t swap out your prescribed meds for the oils. Think in addition to, not instead of.
If you’re interested in trying complementary therapies, you might opt for something like meditation and mindful breathing techniques, suggests Carver.
Could the evidence change?
For now, doctors are suggesting people with lung health issues either avoid essential oils or approach them with extreme caution, due to a lack of solid evidence proving any benefit to the use of essential oils for lung health. But could new research make an impact? Perhaps.
“There is potentially some research that is still in early phases where they could still have some potential benefits,” says Buhr. But wait. Those “early phases” usually mean research that involves petri dishes or animals, not humans, he notes. “There’s definitely a role for continued exploration for the role of botanicals as treatment, but that doesn’t mean they’re ready for prime time” with current available preparations, he says.
The bottom line: it’s a good idea to be cautious about using essential oils if you happen to have a lung disease or condition. Talk to your healthcare provider before you start using anything new, including an essential oil or herbal supplement.
And don’t give up on any of the prescribed meds you’re taking without consulting your doctor first. If you’re concerned about a side effect of your current medication, your doctor may be able to find a different medication that might be better for you.
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