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It seems nearly every year we hear that the flu is particularly rampant, or that this year’s vaccine was not very effective. The internet abounds with suggestions—elderberry syrup, vitamin C, antivirals. What about essential oils? Can they help? The answer is maybe. Essential oils may shorten the duration of the flu a little, and they may help a little with easing the symptoms. But, if you have ever had the flu, you will take any help you can get!
What is the flu?
To understand how essential oils can help with the flu, we need to know a little bit more about it. The flu is caused by a virus. Viruses are constantly evolving or mutating, which is why there can be different strains circulating in any given season. This is also why having the flu once does not protect you from future flu’s.
I know when I was growing up we considered stomach bugs to be “the flu,” and everything respiratory to be a cold. In fact, the flu is a respiratory disease, kind of like a cold on steroids.
Some of the primary differences between cold and flu symptoms are that colds are more likely to produce sneezing, stuffy noses and sore throats, while the flu is more likely to cause fever, aches and chills. To help you figure out if you have a cold or the flu, the CDC has a handy chart.
Symptoms of the Flu
Common symptoms of the flu include fever, chills, aches, cough, headache, and fatigue (Mayo Clinic).
What to diffuse for the flu
Essential oil therapy should aim to
- Support the body in fighting the root cause of the infection (viruses)
- Ease the symptoms
Fever—In general, fevers are your body working to fight the illness and should be allowed to run their course. Cool compresses can help you feel more comfortable. If a fever exceeds 103 for adults, or 102 for children over 3 months you should consult your doctor (Mayo Clinic).
Headache—Essential oils that are good for headaches include Roman chamomile, eucalyptus, lavender, marjoram, and peppermint
Fatigue—Oils for general fatigue include sweet basil, clove bud, frankincense, geranium, juniper berry, lavender, peppermint, Scotch pine, rosemary and spearmint
Cough—Try benzoin, cypress, eucalyptus, rosemary, Scotch pine, or Tea Tree. (Note: benzoin may be to thick for ultrasonics and nebulizers. Thick oils are best in an oil burner.)
Aches—Diffusing will not be the most effective way to deal with body aches. You can try taking a bath with a mix of lavender, chamomile and marjoram (dilute into some body wash to help disperse the oils in the tub). You could also make a massage oil by diluting about 12 drops of a blend of equal parts chamomile, juniper and lavender into 1 oz. of vegetable oil. Rub a tsp. of the mixture into your arms and legs.
Anti-viral oils: Antiviral oils include eucalyptus radiata, bay laurel, thyme linalol, ravintsara, ravensara, tea tree, and clove bud. While strong anti-microbials may be tempting, Robert Tisserand cautions against relying on them, especially for children. Their immune system needs time to develop naturally (Tisserand Institute). Kurt Schnaubelt agrees, as these oils can be too irritating in high doses. Schnaubelt recommends Eucalyptus radiata, Spike lavender, or ravinstara (Cinnamonum camphora).
Best overall essential oils for the flu
Now that we have looked at the oils for particular symptoms, what are the most commonly recommended oils for influenza? Lemon, peppermint, and rosemary ct. cineole come up most frequently. Other oils include tea tree, eucalyptus, lavender, and ravintsara.
Blends to diffuse for the flu
3 drops lemongrass
1 drop geranium
General flu blend
3 drops Eucalyptus
2 drop Lavender
1 drop Peppermint
1 drop Tea Tree
General flu blend #2
3 drops Peppermint
2 drops Ravintsara
2 drop Lavender
General flu blend #3
2 drops Lemon
2 drops Tea Tree
General flu blend #4
2 drops Rosemary
2 drops Ravintsara
1 drop Eucalyptus radiata
For kids (2 and over)
Try diffusing 2 drops lavender and 2 drops tea tree. You can also use Plant Therapy’s Germ Destroyer or Breathe from their KidSafe line of blends. (affiliate link)
How to use essential oils for the flu
As a respiratory disease, inhalation is a great way to use aromatherapy for the flu. Inhaling oil vapors can bring essential oil molecules directly in contact with your nasal passages and lung tissue. Try any of the following methods of inhalation
- Personal inhaler—a good choice when you are around people or pets that shouldn’t be exposed to essential oils
- Steam—place a few drops of your blend in a bowl of hot water. Tent your head with a towel and breathe the aromatic steam for about 5 minutes. You can repeat this a few times a day.
- Ultrasonic diffuser—use an ultrasonic diffuser in your sick room to help alleviate your symptoms
- Nebulizing diffuser—while an ultrasonic is a great everyday diffuser, when you are ill is the perfect time to break out the nebulizing diffuser if you have one. These diffusers create a mist of just essential oil (no water) so they are believed to be more therapeutic. (read more about choosing a nebulizer)
Other things you can do
The best things you can do for yourself while sick with the flu are to rest and stay hydrated. Your body can generally fight off the flu on its own. The role of aromatherapy is to hopefully reduce the severity and duration of the disease.
The flu can be deadly or cause secondary bacterial infections. If your symptoms get worse or aren’t improving you should call your doctor. See this list of warning signs at Web MD. You should also consult your doctor if you have the flu and are immunocompromised, very young, or very old.
Many people swear by elderberry syrup for shortening the duration of a flu. It is one “medicine” you and your kids won’t mind taking as it is delicious!
A healthy diet, proper rest, and regular exercise can keep our bodies functioning optimally. When we are stressed, run down, or not fueling our bodies properly we are more susceptible to disease.
One of the best things you can do for others while sick is to stay home. You are contagious from about a day before symptoms appear until 3-5 days after they start. The flu can be spread through droplets in the air that are inhaled, or by touching contaminated surfaces and then touching your eyes, nose or mouth. We live in a culture where we sometimes feel obligated to tough it out and not call in sick. Believe me, your work colleagues or school classmates will thank you for not infecting them.
If you live with others, try to keep to one area of the house, and use a diffuser periodically to help reduce the microbial load in the home.
According to Web MD, your odds of getting the flu in any given year are between 5-20%. The flu vaccine can reduce those odds. Meanwhile, while you are healthy, you can occasionally diffuse essential oils that promote a healthy immune system as well as air “cleansing” oils like lemongrass, lemon, eucalyptus citriodora, or lavandin. The flu is certainly no fun, so with an ounce of prevention hopefully you can avoid getting sick. If you do get the flu, use the suggestions above to give your body a little support in making you well again.
The information in this article is intended to be educational and not a substitute for professional medical advice. You are encouraged to do your own due diligence whenever self-treating for any condition.