Many people are turning to essential oils in their scramble to find relief for the miserable symptoms of seasonal allergies. Essential oils are liquids distilled from different plants that can be inhaled (called aromatherapy) or put directly on the skin. Although the scientific evidence to back the practice is still limited (mainly because not that many studies have been done), anecdotal evidence does suggest they can be helpful in controlling certain symptoms, like stuffy nose, coughing, and congestion.
“I do see some good benefits,” says Ryan D. Gauthier, doctor of acupuncture and oriental medicine and manager of the Center for Integrative Medicine at Henry Ford Health System in Detroit, “but more research is needed.”
Even though essential oils are available over the counter, it’s important to get medical guidance before using them. Quality varies widely between products, and some liquids may actually make your allergies worse. If you have seasonal allergies, here are a few essential oils that may be worth asking your health care provider about.
Lemon oil is a popular choice for seasonal allergies.
“One study shows that nasal sprays containing lemon essential oils can actually reduce inflammation in the sinuses,” Gauthier says.
The study was a small one with just 100 people, but it did find that those participants using a spray made with an extract of lemon pulp and other ingredients had fewer inflammatory cells than people taking a placebo. The lemon group also reported feeling better.
One word of caution: “All citrus oils are photosensitive,” Gauthier says. “That means if we’re using lemon oil and putting it under our nose and you get direct sunlight, it’s going to burn and peel the skin. Sun intensifies the effect.”
Peppermint oil may ease coughing associated with seasonal allergies (and other ailments). If that’s true, it may be because the oil smooths out muscles involved in coughing, according to one study conducted in rats.
“Peppermint is loosely related to menthol, and menthol is used in things like Vicks VapoRub and inhalation sprays for nasal sinusitis,” Gauthier says. “They’re used to open up the lungs, and there’s some anecdotal evidence on that.”
The plant that gives us peppermint oil is related to plants that give us spearmint, basil, lavender, rosemary, sage, marjoram, and thyme. These are all widely used in folk medicine for a variety of health complaints, including stomach, respiratory, and pain problems.
When a group of researchers in Israel gave a blend of oils including two types of eucalyptus oil to patients with upper respiratory tract infections, they saw improvements in hoarseness, cough, and sore throat in just 20 minutes. The essential oil blend used in the study contained Eucalyptus citriodora, Eucalyptus globulus, peppermint, Syrian oregano, and rosemary.
The spray was applied five times a day for three days, but after three days, there was no difference in symptoms between the people who used the essential oil blend and study participants given a placebo spray.
“The evidence is mixed,” Gauthier says.
One of the main reasons many essential oils are believed to help with allergies and other conditions is their anti-inflammatory properties. Lavender and tea tree oils, for instance, are both anti-inflammatory, but they may be more helpful for taming skin conditions than respiratory symptoms.
Lavender (we like NOW Foods Lavender Oil, $30, amazon.com) may also aid sleep by reducing anxiety. Some believe that preparations made with chamomile (famous as an ingredient in calming tea) may help with hay fever symptoms, along with other ailments. And frankincense, also credited with anti-inflammatory benefits for people with bronchitis and sinusitis, may also help certain digestive conditions.
How to use essential oils safely
Safety is a big concern when using essential oils. Products aren’t regulated the same way medications are, and quality varies widely between brands. Look for reliable brands, like Snow Lotus Essential Oils, Gauthier says.
Essential oils also should never be ingested. “They can affect the detoxification systems of the liver and kidneys,” Gauthier says. “Some oils are safer than others, but the lay person should not be taking them internally.”
For sinus issues, he adds, essential oils “can be administered by defusing or putting the oils on a cotton ball and smelling them.” Make sure they’re diluted to the correct concentration-another reason to check with a medical professional before diving in.
In some cases, essential oils may also make allergies worse. “If you’re allergic to an individual flower or grass or weed, and you’re using that essential oil, you may be allergic to the oil as well,” Gauthier says. They can also aggravate skin conditions if you use them topically.
Bear in mind that essential oils are not the only home remedies that may help with allergies. Neti pots, inhaling steam, and eating spicy foods can all ease symptoms. More severe seasonal allergies may require antihistamines or steroids. “I think of essential oils as an adjunct,” Gauthier says.