Is Clove a Cure-All?

Medically reviewed by Alan Carter, PharmD on June 14, 2016Written by Elea Carey on November 4, 2014


You’re probably most familiar with clove as a ground spice used in holiday baking or as the buds that dot a Christmas ham. What you might not know is that this aromatic spice has a long history in healing and medicine.

In ancient times, ground clove was used in many Asian cultures to treat a variety of conditions, including scabies, malaria, and even tuberculosis. In ancient China, those who wished to speak to the emperor were required to put cloves in their mouths to mask bad breath.

Where do cloves come from?

Cloves are the unopened flower buds of a tree in the family Myrtaceae, commonly called the evergreen clove tree, which is native to Indonesia. When the flower buds are pink, they are handpicked and dried until they turn brown. The individual buds are referred to as cloves, while the ground spice is known as clove.

The Latin name for cloves, Syzygium aromaticum, hints at their spicy nature. Ground clove has been a common spice ingredient in kitchens around the world for hundreds — possibly thousands — of years. You’ve probably tasted clove in curries, gingerbread, or sprinkled on eggnog.

Ground clove works best in baking and added to dishes where its texture can dissolve. It’s a popular additive to mulled wine. Whole cloves can be inserted stem-first into meats for roasting. Some people even insert them in attractive patterns into the skin of oranges. The result isn’t edible, but it makes a great sachet for scenting closets and drawers.

Do cloves have health benefits?

Many health benefits are credited to clove, but few are supported by scientific study. Some say it can help with vomiting and hiccups, and others use clove as a remedy for toothaches, sore gums, and even oral ulcers. There are even clove cigarettes. Some users might think they are safer, but they’re just as harmful as tobacco, if not more so.

Both clove and clove oil have been said to relieve gas and bloating. In clove oil, the essential oil of cloves is extracted and added to a carrier oil. Other purported uses for it are as a treatment for tooth and teething pain. You can make clove oil yourself by letting cloves stand in vegetable or coconut oil, or by heating cloves in oil. Be careful when heating anything containing a lot of clove, though. The aromatic qualities might irritate your eyes and respiratory system. Clove oil can also irritate your skin.

What does the research say?

At pharmacies, clove is sold as a supplement in pill and capsule form. You can also find clove oil and clove in tincture form. Many manufacturers tout that they are helpful in treating fungal infections. A study in the Journal of Medical Microbiology indicates that this could be true, but further study is needed.

Clove is also sometimes used for pain relief because it seems to have a numbing effect on skin. Research reported in the Journal of Dentistry also shows clove’s promise as a topical pain reliever to replace benzocaine. This numbing effect might also be helpful in preventing premature ejaculation, though recent studies are lacking.

Are there any side effects?

Clove oil can increase the risk of abnormal bleeding. People with bleeding disorders or who are taking blood-thinning medication should be careful when consuming clove products. Another side effect of clove use could be irritation of the skin, eyes, nose, or throat. Signs of this include a rash, itchy eyes, or shortness of breath. Any signs of an allergic reaction to clove should be treated as a medical emergency.

Try these recipes using cloves instead

Clove smells great and adds spice and interest to everyday foods. Like many spices, it has a minor preservative effect on foods. While it may have potential in treating pain and fungal infections, very little scientific evidence supports its many other health claims. For now, you can rely on clove to add some flavor to your food instead:

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