The basics

Steaming or pressing plants releases aroma-rich oils. These oils, which contain the odor and flavor of the plants, are often referred to as the plant’s essence. The essences can be added to a variety of products, including perfumes, candles, and aromatherapy scents. They’re also sometimes added to foods and drinks.

For centuries, essences or essential oils have also been used as alternative treatments for a variety of medical conditions. In recent years, essential oils have gained popularity as nontraditional treatments and are once again gaining attention from the health community.

What the research says

Extracting essences from plants by natural means produces pure, high-quality oils. These oils can be used in a variety of ways. Many people use essential oils strictly as an aromatherapy product.

These oils can be applied to the skin or diffused in a steamer. Gently inhaling the scents can provide any number of benefits, including relaxation and headache relief.

“Asthma is a condition that often gets worse in anxious moments,” according to Erin Stair, M.D., M.P.H., a New York-based doctor. Breathing exercises combined with some aromatherapy may also offer relief in many instances.

Although there’s an abundance of anecdotal evidence, essential oils haven’t been studied thoroughly. The majority of quality, peer-reviewed studies examining essential oils exclusively analyzed their potential as aromatherapy options. Studies that support their use as mainstream alternative medical treatments are limited.

Several oils have shown potential as an alternative treatment for asthma symptoms:

Peppermint

When taken orally, peppermint oil may help reduce symptoms of an asthma attack. It’s unclear how this happens, but it appears the oil may reduce asthma’s effect on bronchial smooth muscle.

Lavender

Breathing in diffused lavender essential oil may help reduce inflammation caused by allergies and asthma. Add a few drops of the oil to a diffuser or a humidifier to reap the benefits.

Clove

You likely know clove from the culinary world. This flower also produces an essential oil that may help relieve symptoms of asthma. When taken in a mixture with water, clove essential oil may help reduce symptoms such as wheezing, chest pain, and difficulty breathing.

How to use essential oils for symptoms of asthma

The best time to use an essential oil treatment for asthma is between attacks, not while you’re having one or are experiencing an increase in symptoms.

“It all depends on the person, on the ailment, on how you use it, [but a] reduction in symptoms can take from 10 minutes to weeks,” says Birgitta Lauren, a Los Angeles aromatherapist. “Try each [oil] separately.”

Mix two to three drops of an essential oil with one-quarter cup of a carrier oil. Carrier oils are neutral oils that dilute the essential oil, helping a little bit go a long way. Carrier oils also help spread the fragrance around so you’re not as likely to be overwhelmed by the scent.

Spread the oil combination on your chest, and inhale the scent for 15 to 20 minutes. Then wipe clean, and repeat daily as needed.

If you’re using lavender essential oil, consider making a steam bath instead. Fill a bucket or bowl with steaming water. Add two to three drops of the lavender essential oil to the water, and gently stir.

Place your face directly over the water, being careful not to touch the hot water. Drape a towel over your head so it covers both your head and the sides of the bowl. Inhale deeply for 5 to 10 minutes. Take a break for a few minutes, and then repeat two to three more times.

An aromatherapy diffuser or a humidifier can also disperse the concentrated oil into the air. If you have a large bathtub, you can also add a few drops of the oil to Epsom salt, then pour the salt into a warm bath. Breathe deeply to enjoy the aromatic benefits of the essential oils in your bath.

Risks and warnings

Different people have different reactions to essential oils, so it’s important to be cautious as you integrate essential oils into your routine. Although they’re widely considered safe, you should speak with your doctor to make sure you don’t have an allergy. If you’re allergic to an essential oil, that oil may trigger an attack. You should also make sure that adding essential oils won’t interfere with your current plan for controlling your asthma.

Strong odors and fragrances may actually trigger an asthma attack. If you’re generally sensitive to fragrances, you should avoid using essential oils or any aromatherapy treatment.

If your asthma symptoms worsen after you begin using the essential oils, stop immediately. Consult your doctor before you use this alternative treatment again.

Some studies suggest oral doses of essential oils may be beneficial, but healthcare professionals generally advise against oral consumption. This is because concentrated oils may be too harsh for your stomach.

It’s also unclear whether there are short- or long-term effects to oral ingestion. With oral ingestion you could begin experiencing stomach pain. If this happens you should seek immediate medical attention.

Other treatments for asthma symptoms

Aromatherapy and essential oils are not a cure for asthma. You should continue to use your prescribed medication or recommended treatment regimen. Treatments may include:

Control medications

Asthma control medications are often the foundation of all asthma treatment plans. Long-term medications, such as inhaled corticosteroids, provide day-to-day relief from many asthma symptoms. They also help reduce the likelihood of an attack.

Inhalers

Quick-relief bronchodilators can ease the symptoms of an asthma attack within minutes. Most people with asthma keep an inhaler with them at all times.

Allergy medications

People with asthma that is made worse or caused by seasonal allergies may opt to take allergy medication during the most active allergy periods.

Using alternative therapies to prevent asthma attacks

Yoga or breathing exercises can also help head off the respiratory distress that stems from stress or anxiety.

Buteyko breathing is beneficial for people with asthma, Stair says. “Inhale and exhale normally. At the end of the normal exhalation, hold the breath. This is called the controlled pause. The more you do this exercise, the longer the controlled pause will become.”

She adds that repeated practice with the exercise can help a person consciously control their breath in stressful situations.

A healthy diet, exercise, and paying close attention to your overall well-being can also provide beneficial side effects.

What you can do now

If you’re curious about essential oils and how they might help ease your symptoms of asthma, you should:

Talk with your doctor

You don’t necessarily need a doctor’s supervision to use essential oils, but it’s a good idea to let your doctor know what you plan to use. Your doctor can assess whether these oils may react with any medications that you’re currently taking.

Find a reputable source

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) doesn’t regulate essential oils. That means oil qualities and purity levels are entirely dependent on the manufacturer’s self-imposed standards. Research brands before purchasing.

Ask questions

Don’t be afraid to talk with your doctor, a nurse, or anyone who is familiar with essential oils. Though not a traditional medical treatment, many healthcare workers understand how to use these oils and can help you start using them, too.

If you begin experiencing any unusual symptoms while using essential oils, you should discontinue use and consult your doctor.

Learn more: How to prevent asthma attacks »