Asthma is a respiratory condition that causes breathing problems in both adults and children. In the United States, more than 25 million people¹ (1 in 13) live with asthma symptoms that vary in intensity. Currently, there isn't a cure for asthma. However, multiple options exist for controlling it.
Doctors create individual treatment plans for asthma that include long-term management and short-term symptom relief. By following your doctor's recommendations, avoiding triggers, and leveraging natural remedies, it's possible to enjoy a high quality of life.
Let's take a closer look at using essential oils for asthma control and whether they are safe and/or effective.
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Asthma is a chronic condition that affects your airways. During an attack, airways swell and become inflamed, which leaves little space for the air to reach your lungs. This condition affects adults and children of all ages. The intensity of attacks ranges from mild to life-threatening.
When you have asthma, you can have an attack at any time. Common asthma triggers include tobacco smoke, dust mites, air pollution, pests, mold, furry pets, pollen, disinfectants, sinus infections, and even acid reflux.
During the attack, the airways start swelling and become clogged with excess mucus. Meanwhile, your muscles tighten around the airways, causing them to constrict. When this happens, you can experience symptoms such as:
Shortness of breath (inability to inhale fully)
Wheezing (you can hear the air whistle in your chest as you breathe)
Tightness or pain in your chest
Waking up at night with asthma symptoms
Mild asthma symptoms can last for a few minutes. Meanwhile, severe attacks can continue for hours or even days.
Scientists have yet to discover the exact cause of asthma. However, factors that are known to contribute to its development include:
Genetics – Children whose parents have the condition are more likely to develop it than those without such a family history.
Allergies – Allergic asthma is the most common type of asthma in the United States, affecting 6 in 10 people with the condition.
Environment – Indoor and outdoor air pollution could trigger asthma, and studies² show that children continuously exposed to traffic-related air pollution have a high risk of developing asthma.
Childhood viral infections – Studies³ show that persistent viral infections in younger children could increase the risk of asthma development by school age.
Asthma is one of the most common and expensive conditions in the United States. It costs the U.S. economy around $80 billion a year.⁴ The National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences conducts and supports various asthma-related research aimed at discovering causes and treatments.
To diagnose asthma, your doctor will likely:
Review your medical history, including the frequency of childhood infections
Review your family history to check if close family members have asthma
Conduct a physical exam to review your overall health
Do an x-ray of your lungs and sinuses
If they suspect asthma, your doctor may ask you to take one or several lung function tests, such as:
Spirometry – evaluation of how much air you inhale and exhale as well as how fast you can do it
Peak airflow – evaluation of how well the air can move out of your lungs
FeNO - measurement of the amount of nitric oxide in your breath to tell how inflamed your airways are
Once asthma is confirmed with your doctor, you can work out an Asthma Action Plan (AAP) that includes steps you need to take to keep the condition under control. It can also list preventive measures, such as:
Getting a flu shot and a pneumococcal vaccine
Taking care of your general health
A doctor can also teach you how to recognize the upcoming attack so you can take your medication before the symptoms get worse.
Some people who live with asthma prefer complementing their therapy with natural remedies. While more studies need to be done, several essential oils may be beneficial for relieving asthma symptoms:
Peppermint – one study⁵ (on healthy participants) demonstrated that peppermint oil could improve spirometry measurements since peppermint can relax bronchial smooth muscles
Thyme – a study⁶ done on rabbits demonstrated that thyme might alleviate bronchial asthma thanks to its anti-inflammatory, anti-apoptotic (cell death), and antioxidant effects. Scientists may use this research to improve thyme management options for people.
Chamomile⁷– chamomile contains chrysin, a compound that can battle asthma-related inflammation. However, more studies need to be done to understand how using chamomile oil can benefit asthma patients.
Oregano - oregano oil contains carvacrol which may be beneficial for asthma patients thanks to its muscle-relaxing effect. In one study,⁸ patients who received carvacrol experienced an improvement in asthma-related wheezing.
Clove⁹– clove ingredients have antiviral, antibacterial, and anti-inflammatory properties. Since ancient times, people have used it to treat respiratory problems. However, there aren't any studies that confirm its positive effects on asthma patients.
Tea tree – tea tree has antibacterial, anti-inflammatory, immune-stimulating, and antiviral properties. However, there isn't sufficient research to confirm its benefits for asthma treatment.
Rosemary – research¹⁰ shows that rosemary, which has antispasmodic properties, may have the potential to alleviate asthma symptoms.
Keep in mind that essential oils are complementary to asthma therapy. They can't replace the medication from your AAP.
There are several ways you can use essential oils to possibly help control your asthma. If you decide to take advantage of this complementary treatment option, consult your doctor and make sure you only do it between attacks. An asthma attack warrants using prescribed medication according to your AAP.
Here are some suggested uses for essential oils:
Topical - dilute the essential oil of your choice with a carrier oil (olive oil, jojoba, almond) and apply it to your skin.
Inhalation – open the bottle of oil and inhale it several times. You can also put a few drops of oil into a bowl of hot water and breathe in the vapor.
Diffuser – you can buy a special essential oil diffuser, which is a device that disperses liquid into the air around it.
Internally – you can consume pure essential oil drops internally. However, keep in mind that the FDA doesn't regulate these oils, so there isn't any way to check their purity.
Shower and bath – add a few drops of essential oil to the walls in the shower. As steam appears, you can inhale deeply for the oil vapor to reach your lungs. You can also add the oil to a hot bath.
Whatever method you choose, you must be ready for an adverse reaction. You should have your asthma medication readily available to alleviate symptoms if they occur.
If you have a reaction to one method of using an essential oil, don't try another way. Call your doctor to discuss your options.
Studies that confirm the possible benefits of essential oils for asthma in humans are scarce. However, some studies demonstrate how biogenic volatile organic compounds contained in these oils could trigger asthma attacks.
If you have allergic asthma, inhaling essential oils may likely cause an attack. That's why it's imperative to speak to your doctor about implementing them into your therapy.
The Asthma and Allergy Foundation of America¹¹ doesn't recommend using essential oils for asthma. In fact, they advise against them since:
There is no evidence confirming the positive effect of essential oils on asthma.
When used topically, essential oils may cause skin irritation.
CDC confirms that complementary and alternative medicine, such as essential oil, doesn't undergo scientific review.
If you are considering this complementary treatment option, make sure to review all the possible pros and cons.
If you prefer natural therapies for asthma control, essential oils aren't the only option. You can also take advantage of:
Yoga – doing breathing exercises that are part of yoga practice may help control breathing and relieve stress, which is an asthma trigger.
Acupuncture – while more research needs to be done, some people who live with asthma report experiencing relief after acupuncture sessions.
Biofeedback – research¹² shows that biofeedback may help reduce the use of steroid medication in people with asthma.
Speak to your doctor about alternative treatment options to complement your AAP.
Asthma is a common chronic condition that affects your airways. While there isn't a cure, numerous options exist to manage symptoms. One of the ways to complement the main course of treatment is to use natural remedies.
Essential oils for asthma may offer some relief to the patient. However, the number of studies confirming their positive effect is minimal. Meanwhile, essential oils are proven triggers of asthma attacks in some cases.
Contact your doctor for advice if you'd like to use essential oils for asthma.
Most recent national asthma data | Centers for Disease Control and Prevention
Asthma costs the U.S. economy more than $80 billion per year | American Thoracic Society
What is asthma? | Asthma and Allergy Foundation of America