Aromatherapy/Essential Oils for Cough

A cough often accompanies the common cold, seasonal allergies, and other common ailments. It can also be brought on suddenly when you come into contact with smoke or other irritating substances in the environment. While coughing occasionally is expected, persistent and hacking coughs can cause pain in the throat and associated muscles. A cough is not a disease or an abnormal condition, but it may be the symptom of such a condition and require attention and treatment. Aromatherapists suggest that essential oil aromatherapy can be an effective treatment for a cough.

How Is Aromatherapy Used to Treat a Cough?

Essential oils are used in aromatherapy to treat a cough in two general ways: by rubbing the oil on your chest or by inhaling the fumes of the oil. In the first approach, a few drops of the essential oil are mixed with a small amount (about a quarter of a cup) of a carrier oil. A carrier oil is an odorless neutral oil in which the essential oil is dissolved. (Some typical carrier oils are olive oil, grape seed oil, sunflower oil, and walnut oil.) The mixture is then rubbed on the chest to relieve a cough. The fumes of an essential oil can also be used to treat a cough. The oil may be heated on a burner, placed into warm water, or soaked into a handkerchief and then inhaled. For some people, the easiest method is to place a few drops of essential oil in a basin of warm water, place the head over the basin, and drape a towel over the head to retain the fumes.

Which Essential Oils Can Be Used in Aromatherapy to Treat Cough?

A number of essential oils recommended for treatment of a cough, including the following:

  • Angelica (Angelica archangelica), because of its expectorant properties, causing the expulsion of phlegm from the lungs
  • Black pepper (Piper nigrum), because it tends to open up the respiratory passages
  • Cajeput (Melaleuka leukadendron), because it helps fight infections of the upper respiratory system
  • Cedarwood (Cedrus atlantica ), because it loosens mucus in the lungs and generally relieves the muscles of the respiratory system
  • Cyprus (Cupressus sempervirens), because it helps reduce the accumulation of fluids in the lungs
  • Eucalyptus (Eucalyptus globulus), because it reduces inflammation of the respiratory system and loosens mucus in the lungs
  • Frankincense (Boswellia carteri), because it tends to regulate breathing and clear the lungs
  • Lavender (Lavandula augustifolia), because it acts as a relaxant and helps relieve problems of the respiratory tract
  • Lemon (Citrus lemon), because it is especially effective in treating infections of the throat
  • Myrrh (Commiphora myrrha), because it tends to reduce the accumulation of mucus in the lungs
  • Peppermint (Mentha piperita), because it is helpful in treating dry coughs in particular
  • Rose (Rosa damascena), because it reduces coughs associated with a variety of respiratory problems, such as asthma and allergies
  • Rosemary (Rosmarinus officinalis), because it appears to relieve a variety of respiratory disorders, including asthma, bronchitis, sinus infections, and whooping cough
  • Sandalwood (Santalum album), because it helps relieve infections of the upper respiratory system and relieves the build up of mucus in the lungs
  • Tea tree (Melaleuca alternifolia), because it is effective in the treatment of infections that may be responsible for cough and helps clear bronchial congestion

Potential Risks from Essential Oils Used in Aromatherapy

Although scientific studies have not yet proven its effectiveness, many people use aromatherapy to treat cough based on anecdotal evidence hundreds of years old that shows its benefits. Some risk is involved in the use of many essential oils, the most common of which is skin irritation. Some people are more or less allergic to one or more essential oils, and they may experience inflammation, itching, and burning of the skin when applied directly to the skin at full concentration. For that reason, the use of carrier oils to dilute the essential oil is always important. In general, children should use smaller doses of essential oils in aromatherapy treatments, and very young children and pregnant women should not use essential oils at all. Finally, a few essential oils—bergamot oil, for example—can have more serious effects on the skin and respiratory system when used in bright sunlight.

What Is Aromatherapy?

Aromatherapy is a method of using natural oils for treating physical and psychological problems and achieving a general state of physical and mental well-being. Although aromatherapists rely primarily on about 100 oils obtained from plants, they may also use a variety of other natural products, including sea salt, sugars, mud, clay, herbs, milk powder, and other products. They avoid using synthetic products of any kind. Some examples of the essential oils used in aromatherapy are basil, chamomile, cypress, jasmine, nutmeg, sage, and ylang-ylang. Each of the essential oils used for treatment of a specific condition is chosen because of its special properties, such as being an antiseptic (fighting infection), antipyretic (reducing fever), diuretic (removing water from the body), expectorant (promoting expulsion of phlegm from the lung), sedative (calming), or vulnerary (aiding in the healing of wounds).

What Is the Function of a Cough?

A cough is a sudden expulsion of air from the lungs designed to clear the upper respiratory system. It is a normal reaction of the body to the presence of a foreign substance that has entered the mouth, throat, or some other part of the respiratory system. A forest fire, for example, may increase the concentration of dust, ash, and other particles in the air, where people living in the area of the fire may inhale them. By coughing, people eject those particles from their throat or lungs, keeping them from entering their bodies and preventing them from causing irritation and infection. Any number of factors may cause the coughing response; an occasional cough is not an indication of a medical problem. A chronic cough, however, may indicate the presence of a disease or an infection. The most common causes of a chronic cough are respiratory diseases such as asthma or chronic bronchitis, or due to digestive disorders such as heartburn.

The various essential oils associated with the treatment of cough can fight respiratory infection, open the respiratory passages, loosen mucus and expel phlegm from the lungs—all of which can help treat a cough.

Additional Resources
Keville, Kathi, and Mindy Green. Aromatherapy: A Complete Guide to the Healing Art. Berkeley, CA: Crossing Press, 2008.

Stiles, K. G. "Respiratory Congestion and Cough Remedy With Cypress Oil."

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