Can Essential Oils Treat a Cough?

A couple essential oils may be used with caution, but there are safer and more effective options
Person with hand over mouth, coughing, with hand on their chest.

Ah, the dreaded cough. It creeps up on you at the worst possible moment, and tends to be a lingering symptom after a cold or respiratory illness. Yes, coughing can be a useful part of getting over that illness — it helps get rid of mucus from your lungs and irritants from your throat. But coughing can also be annoying (to you AND the people you’re around all day).

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Some people turn to essential oils as a natural way to ease coughing. But “natural” doesn’t always mean safe. Wellness and preventive medicine physician Jessica Ruff, MD, shares what to watch out for.

Essential oils for coughs: What you need to know

“There isn’t enough scientific evidence to say that essential oils are helpful for coughs or other medical purposes,” says Dr. Ruff. “There are a lot of unknowns.”

For instance, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) doesn’t regulate essential oils. “There’s no way to know how highly concentrated or powerful the oil is,” she continues. “And you may not be getting what the label says.”

What essential oils are good for coughs?

If you choose to use essential oils for coughs, Dr. Ruff suggests proceeding with caution — and only trying eucalyptus oil or peppermint oil. These oils are mostly known for opening nasal passages to help you breathe better, which may ease coughing.

  • Eucalyptus oil may have anti-inflammatory properties that soothe sinus congestion.
  • Peppermint oil has menthol, which helps open stuffy noses.

You may have heard of other essential oils for coughs, such as cinnamon, rosemary, nutmeg or bergamot. But Dr. Ruff cautions against using these as they haven’t been studied in humans to treat coughs.

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Who shouldn’t use essential oils for coughs?

Because little is known about the safety and risks of essential oils, certain people shouldn’t use them, including:

  • Infants and young children: Don’t use essential oils (either as aromatherapy or applied to the skin) on children younger than 6 years of age.
  • People getting surgery: Eucalyptus oil can affect blood sugar levels during and after surgery.
  • Pregnant or breastfeeding people: Peppermint and eucalyptus as food ingredients are likely OK because the amounts are small. But there’s no safety data on using these essential oils during pregnancy or breastfeeding.

How should you use essential oils for coughs?

If you want to try essential oils for coughs, you need to do so carefully. Because they’re so highly concentrated, you must mix them with another oil (called a carrier oil) or water before use. A diluted, less powerful essential oil is less likely to cause harmful reactions.

Diluting an essential oil to the right amount is tricky. “How many drops of essential oil to use depends on the oil’s concentration, which varies,” notes Dr. Ruff. Plus, the label might not be accurate.

Children 6 and older should never use more than six drops of essential oil mixed with 1 fluid ounce of oil or water. Adults may be able to use 20 to 30 drops in a fluid ounce. “I recommend using fewer drops to lower the risk of complications,” she says.

There are a couple of ways to use essential oils for coughs:

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  • Apply an essential oil to your skin: Blend an essential oil with a carrier oil (usually coconut oil or avocado oil) and apply the mixture to your chest. The carrier oil dilutes the essential oil and helps evenly distribute the essential oil on your skin. It also keeps the essential oil from evaporating too quickly.
  • Breathe in an essential oil: Add drops of essential oil to a diffuser. Diffusers send small molecules of essential oils into the air as a mist, allowing you to breathe in the oil’s fragrance. This is a type of aromatherapy. You can also add essential oils to a pot of steaming water on a stove or your bathwater.

Risks of essential oils for coughs

Essential oils can cause severe, sometimes life-threatening complications, especially in their purest, full-strength form. Keep all essential oils out of children’s reach.

Risks of essential oils include:

  • Breathing problems: Children younger than 6, especially infants, may develop breathing problems after exposure to peppermint and eucalyptus oils.
  • Fatal poisoning: Essential oils can be deadly if swallowed. Coated peppermint oil capsules that some people take for irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) are safe when taken in the recommended amount. Ingesting too much of the oil can lead to stomach upset, nausea, vomiting and diarrhea. It’s safest to not swallow any essential oils unless recommended by your doctor.
  • Seizures: Exposure to eucalyptus and peppermint oil (through ingestion, inhalation or skin contact) can cause seizures and neurological issues in infants and young children.
  • Skin burns and rashes: Even after dilution, essential oils can irritate your skin when applied topically. Some people develop blisters and rashes, which require medical attention.
  • Allergic reaction: You may find that you’re allergic to certain essential oils. This is why it’s important to do a small sampling, known as a patch test, first.

Testing the safety of topical essential oils for coughs

If you want to apply diluted eucalyptus or peppermint essential oil to your chest to ease coughing, Dr. Ruff explains how to test a patch of skin first for allergic reactions.

A patch test is an allergy test that typically takes place at a healthcare provider’s office. To test an area of skin at home:

  1. Wash and dry a small area of skin on your forearm (lower arm).
  2. Dilute the essential oil in coconut oil or another carrier oil.
  3. Apply a small amount of diluted essential oil to your clean forearm.
  4. Cover your skin with gauze.
  5. Remove the gauze after 24 hours and look for signs of irritation, like redness or rash.
  6. If there aren’t any signs of reaction, it’s probably safe to apply the same amount of diluted essential oil to your chest to ease coughs.

Safer alternatives to essential oils

If you’re looking for natural ways to ease coughs, Dr. Ruff says essential oils probably aren’t the answer. Instead, she recommends safer alternatives, such as honey (for people age 1 and older) or peppermint tea, which is made from the plant’s leaves and has small, safe amounts of peppermint oil. “Just because something is natural doesn’t mean it’s good for you,” she reiterates. “I advise caution when using essential oils as medicine.”

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