Some essential oils may ease symptoms of a cough or cold by soothing the throat, fighting bacteria, and reducing inflammation.
In this article, we look at evidence to support the use of 12 essential oils in treating coughs. We also discuss the best ways to use these oils, risks, and when to see a doctor.
The medical community tends to view essential oils as a complementary alternative therapy rather than a medical treatment. These oils should be used with caution, as there are no approved guidelines about dosage or strength.
However, there are instructions, and if a person follows them, any of the 12 essential oils below may help to relieve a cough.
1. Eucalyptus essential oil
Many people use this oil without realizing it. Over-the-counter vapor or chest rubs marketed to suppress coughs often contain eucalyptus oil. Or, they may include the oil's key compound, called eucalyptol or cineole.
A study published in the Alternative Medicine Review found that eucalyptol has an antimicrobial effect and may fight off bacteria that cause illnesses. Eucalyptol may also help to reduce inflammation, relieve pain, and ease muscle tension that can result from a cold or flu.
Eucalyptus essential oil can be used to calm a cough in several ways. A person may want to try:
- adding a few drops of eucalyptus oil to 1 ounce of carrier oil and rubbing the mixture onto the chest and throat
- diluting eucalyptus oil in boiling water and inhaling the steam
Chest rubs containing eucalyptus oil are available to buy online.
2. Rosemary essential oil
Rosemary is a common garden herb. Like eucalyptus, it contains the compound cineole.
A study published in the journal Cough found that cineole may help to break up mucus and reduce inflammation.
3. Peppermint essential oil
Natural care products for respiratory conditions often contain this oil.
Menthol is an extract of peppermint. When inhaled, it creates a cooling sensation that can soothe or numb a scratchy throat.
A 2013 study suggests that when a healthy person uses peppermint oil, it can help to relax the muscles of the windpipe, known as the bronchial muscles. This may explain why the oil can ease breathing in people with coughs.
Peppermint essential oil can be used by:
- diluting the oil in boiling water and inhaling the steam
- adding the oil to a diffuser
- using it in a blend of topical oils
Using peppermint essential oil may not be advisable in children younger than 8 or people who are pregnant.
4. Frankincense essential oil
Frankincense is dervied from the trees of the genus Boswellia and is often used in incense and perfumes.
5. Oregano essential oil
Oregano essential oil contains a high level of a potent compound called carvacrol.
Authors of a 2014 study found that carvacrol is a helpful antimicrobial agent that can fight off many types of germs.
This oil could, therefore, help to treat viral or bacterial causes of a cough.
6. Thyme essential oil
Thyme essential oil also contains a high level of carvacrol. It may be helpful in eliminating or protecting against viruses and bacteria.
7–9. Bergamot, nutmeg, and cypress essential oils
The essential oils of nutmeg, bergamot, and cypress all contain camphene, a compound similar to camphor.
When inhaled, camphene can have a cooling, refreshing effect. It also has antioxidant properties, which may help to protect cells from damage and ward off harmful germs.
10. Geranium essential oil
A review of studies published in Complementary Medicine Research reported that a geranium extract called Pelargonium sidoides was an effective herbal cough treatment.
Geranium essential oil also has a refreshing floral scent. A person may want to add it to a diffuser or a warm bath.
11. Cinnamon essential oil
Adding a few drops of cinnamon essential oil to a diffuser or including the oil in a topical blend may provide relief from a cough.
12. Tea tree essential oil
Tea tree oil (Melaleuca) can inhibit the growth of bad bacteria that cause sinus infections and respiratory issues.
Crushed tea tree leaves have been inhaled by Australian Aborigines to treat coughs and colds, and inhaling tea tree oil may also help to ease the effects of a cough.
A person may find that different oils relax them or otherwise help them to feel more comfortable while dealing with symptoms, even if no research exists to support the use of these oils.
The following essential oils may be helpful:
- lemon or other citrus fruits
For the most part, aromatherapy involves inhaling essential oils through the nose and mouth.
Essential oils are potent. Use them with care. They should be diluted, in a diffuser or in combination with another topical oil, to avoid reactions or complications. Do not ingest an essential oil.
Depending on preference and the severity of symptoms, a person can use an essential oil in a variety of ways.
Add a few drops of essential oil to a bowl of boiling water and breathe in the steam.
Dilute an essential oil in a carrier oil and apply it to the skin. Essential oils can mix well with any number of natural carrier oils, including:
- coconut oil
- olive oil
- argan oil
- apricot kernel oil
- grapeseed oil
- sesame oil
- sunflower oil
Add a few drops of essential oil and a small amount of liquid soap to a bowl of warm water. Soak a towel in this mixture and drape it across the head or chest.
Handkerchief or tissue
Apply one or two drops of essential oil to a handkerchief or tissue. Inhale, holding it close to the mouth and nose. This may provide relief from symptoms, even when a person is outdoors.
If a cough becomes severe, visit a doctor. Warning signs that a cough is becoming serious may include:
- shortness of breath
- a cough that produces blood
- weight loss
- a low-grade fever lasting longer than 1 week
- a high fever
- risk factors for HIV or tuberculosis
When used correctly, essential oils can provide a complementary treatment for a cough.
Keep essential oils out of the reach of children. A medical review from 2001 suggests that camphor and eucalyptus oils can be dangerous when swallowed.
Other sources warn that essential oils can be toxic or even lethal when used in large quantities. Always use these oils with caution.
Many essential oils, including those above, can trigger allergies. Test a small amount of any essential oil before applying the full dose.
Do research and talk to a doctor about potential benefits and risks before using essential oils.