Essential oils are a popular natural treatment. People use them to relieve sinus congestion, unblock a stuffed nose, and promote sinus drainage.
Eucalyptus and peppermint oils show particular promise. Otherwise, little scientific evidence supports the use of essential oils to relieve sinus congestion.
However, there is some evidence that essential oils may improve related symptoms, though many of these studies have involved animals or lab experiments, rather than human participants.
Some research indicates that essential oils can:
- reduce inflammation
- fight bacteria
- relieve pain
These effects may help relieve symptoms associated with congestion.
In this article, we investigate ways that people use essential oils to treat a runny, stuffy nose.
1. Peppermint oil
Inhaling peppermint oil can help to open the airways and clear mucus.
Many people find that inhaling peppermint oil feels good when they have blocked sinuses. This is because of its cooling effect. But does peppermint oil actually improve sinusitis symptoms?
Peppermint oil contains menthol. This compound may affect the mucus receptors in the nose, helping to open the airways and clear mucus.
Lab studies show that peppermint oil may fight bacteria, one of the triggers of sinus congestion. Animal studies demonstrate that it may also reduce inflammation. It is important to emphasize that these studies did not test the effects on humans.
A person can try making a steam bath by placing a few drops of the oil in a bowl of warm water and breathing in the steam for a few minutes until the stuffiness and other symptoms subside. Alternately, a diffuser can fill the air with this essential oil.
Also, certain nasal decongestant products contain peppermint.
Various brands of peppermint oil are available online.
2. Eucalyptus oil
Oil from the eucalyptus plant shows promise as an alternative remedy for sinusitis and congestion.
Several over-the-counter decongestant products, such as chest rubs, contain eucalyptus oil. Many believe that this oil can relieve the symptoms of colds and coughs, including sinus congestion and stuffiness.
People often use eucalyptus oil in steam baths. Like peppermint oil, it may clear stuffiness and congestion in the nose.
Eucalyptus oil contains a compound called cineole. A small-scale 2009 study found cineole to be a safe and effective treatment for sinus issues, compared to a placebo, when participants took it in a pill. The researchers warn, however, that this treatment could cause a rash or heartburn.
They found that cineole improved many sinusitis symptoms, including:
- nasal obstruction
- a runny nose
3. Tea tree oil
Tea tree oil may improve sinus congestion by fighting two potential causes: bacteria and viruses.
A 2015 review notes that a compound called alpha-sabine in tea tree oil provides antiviral, antibacterial, and antifungal effects.
Tea tree oil may also reduce inflammation, which could help bring down sinus swelling. Reduced swelling often relieves the symptoms of congestion, such as a runny or stuffy nose.
People frequently use tea tree oil in diffusers. Various brands are available online.
4. Oregano oil
Oregano oil may help a person recover from sinusitis by fighting off bacteria. Researchers have found that carvacrol, a component of oregano oil, may stop bacteria from growing.
People can find various brands of oregano oil online.
5. Clary sage
Clary sage is another essential oil that may fight sinusitis or congestion caused by bacteria. A 2015 lab study found clary sage oil to be a natural antimicrobial agent.
Several brands of clary sage oil are available online.
6. Lavender oil
Inhaling lavender oil may reduce pain and swelling in the sinuses.
Lavender oil may improve symptoms of sinus congestion by reducing pain and swelling.
A 2015 animal study suggested that this essential oil may have analgesic, or pain-relieving, effects and that it may also reduce inflammation. However, researchers have not tested this in humans.
Lavender oil can also have calming properties for some people, making them feel more relaxed or able to sleep.
Various brands of lavender oil are available online.
7. Rosemary oil
Rosemary is another anti-inflammatory essential oil that may relieve swollen sinuses. Authors of a 2016 review described rosemary's anti-inflammatory properties.
The researchers also found that rosemary is a rich source of antioxidants and may help manage metabolic syndrome.
People can compare brands of rosemary oil online.
How to use essential oils
A person can safely inhale by holding a tissue with drops of essential oil on it close to the face and breathing in.
To use essential oils for sinus congestion relief, it is best to dilute them, then breathe in the scent. Do not swallow or ingest essential oils.
There are four main ways to inhale essential oils:
- Inhaling directly: Add a few drops of essential oil to a tissue and gently breathe in, holding the tissue near the face. Be careful not to get essential oil directly on the skin, as it can cause irritation.
- Inhaling steam: Add a few drops of essential oil to a bowl of boiling water and inhale the steam. Placing a towel over the head can create a steam chamber.
- Using a diffuser: Essential oil diffusers disperse the oil into the air. This is a gentle way to inhale essential oils continuously while at home.
- Adding to a bath: Add a few drops of essential oil to a bath and gently inhale while soaking.
To apply essential oil to the skin, dilute it in a carrier oil, such as sweet almond oil. The usual recipe is 3–5 drops of essential oil for every ounce of carrier oil. Learn more about the best carrier oils and how to use them here.
Test for an allergic reaction by applying a few drops of diluted essential oil to the skin. If there is no reaction in 24 hours, it should be safe to use.
Is it safe for babies?
The American Association of Naturopathic Physicians state that people should not use essential oils with babies younger than 3 months.
Certain oils may be safe to use around older children. Always ask a doctor before exposing babies or young children to essential oils.
Some believe that eucalyptus and peppermint oils are dangerous for infants and that people should refrain from using them around children under 3 years old.
Be aware that when diffusing essential oils in the air, any children, pets, and other family members will also be inhaling the treatment.
Do not diffuse essential oils in public, such as in stores, as many people have allergies to them.
Some essential oils, such as eucalyptus and peppermint, can trigger asthma symptoms.
People have used essential oils as an alternative remedy for hundreds of years. Anyone wishing to avoid over-the-counter decongestants and antibiotics may want to try using an oil as a treatment.
Essential oils are a complementary or alternative therapy. There are no approved guidelines about dosage or strength, so people should use these oils with caution. Do not ingest essential oils unless directed by a doctor, as they can be toxic.
Before doctors recommend essential oils as a sinus congestion treatment, they will need to see more evidence of the effects in humans. However, many people find that the oils bring relief.