Humans have a long history of using essential oils to enhance health and well-being, and to ward off pathogens including viruses, bacteria and fungal infections. Ancient Egyptian tombs were supplied with urns of valuable oils along with riches of gold, and precious gems. Historians have found that when robbers invaded the tombs, they first stole the essential oils – as these health-enhancing plant essences were even more valuable than gold or gems. In biblical times, essential oils, a resource for health and longevity, were given as precious gifts fit for a king. Oils were also used for anointing one’s betrothed as a sign of marital commitment. Only the wealthy could afford the precious oil essences with their health promoting effects, and these oils were stored in the fine alabaster jars of the affluent.
Today, modern scientists are rediscovering the long known secrets of these precious plant substances. Unique chemical components of plants protect them from insects, bacteria, fungi, and viruses that cause diseases. These complex volatile compounds extracted from plants as essential oils also prove to be effective in protecting humans from viral and other infections. Among roughly 250 essential oils that are commercially available, over a dozen oils have been studied and found to possess high antimicrobial potential, including effectively killing viruses. According to researchers at the Wrocław University of Environmental and Life Sciences in Poland, essential oils can provide a potential alternative to synthetic antimicrobial compounds. The study authors suggest “the complex chemical composition of essential oils make them more effective in treating quickly mutating pathogens, as the multiple chemical constituents attack the virus or bacteria from all directions before they can mutate or spread.”
Researchers from the Department of Pathology & Laboratory Medicine, University of British Columbia, Vancouver, reported that some essential oils demonstrate effective antimicrobial and antiviral properties, and in a few cases beneficial anti-inflammatory properties as well. Study authors reported that several Essential Oils were extremely active against influenza viruses, some completely eradicating viruses on surfaces following simply diffusing the oils for only 10-30 minutes.
Dr. Michael Basdavanos, Doctor of Chinese Medicine, who practices and teaches at The Mindfulness Center in Bethesda, Maryland suggests diffusing essential oils or using them on acupressure points on the body. Dr. Basdavanos also creates specific blends for individuals, depending upon their personal constitution.
- Bergamot oil has been shown to be effective against flu viruses as a vapor. Viral cells are destroyed after just 10 minutes of exposure to bergamot vaporized into a room. Bergamot oil and its major active components, namely limonene, linalyl acetate, and linalool, have demonstrated anti‐inflammatory, immunomodulatory, and wound healing activities. Dr. Basdavanos recommends diffusing Bergamot periodically, and enjoying the health promoting effects of vapors. It is also well-known for its lipid lowering and cardiovascular benefits.
- Cinnamon leaf oil is effective as a vapor when diffused into a room. The vaporized oil can land on surface areas and kill viral proteins on contact within 30 minutes of exposure. Cinnamon oil has also been shown to kill both viruses, and bacteria that can cause secondary infections accompanying a viral infection of the lungs. A study in the Journal of Antiviral Research found that direct inhalation of cinnamon oil vapor was effective in treating lethal influenza-induced pneumonia. Inhalation of cinnamon essential oil may be the safest route of administration since some people are sensitive to the oil on their skin. Alternatively, the oil may also be applied to the less sensitive skin on the soles of the feet, since there is good absorption through the feet. Check a small area on the sole of your foot for sensitivity before using. A couple of manufacturers produce cinnamon oil that is safe for human consumption. Cinnamon oil is well known for its ability to lower blood sugar, reduce blood pressure and as a blood thinner, along with many other health benefits. Check with the manufacturer if your oil is safe to take orally, and check with your doctor if it is safe to take with any medications you are taking.
- Eucalyptus oil has been shown to have strong anti-viral activity and is effective as a vapor. Researchers suggest that it may be useful in reducing or preventing the spread of Coronavirus. Studies show that eucalyptus oil has antimicrobial activity against viruses, bacteria, yeasts, and certain fungi. Eucalyptus oil is able to suppress viral multiplication by over 96%. It also exhibits antiviral activity by directly inactivating free-virus particles and interfering with viral contagion.
- Geranium The ingredients in geranium oil have beenshown toeffectively reduce viral spread, and specifically reduce the transcription of viral genes and proteins rendering viruses inactive. This active ingredient, germacrone, is also found in turmeric, which also has antiviral properties. Dr. Basdavanos recommends using geranium essential oil to stimulate the immune system.
- Melissa oil (Lemon Balm) Dr. Basdavanos recommends the use of Melissa oil in a 2% dilution on acupoints. He cautions that a high dosage of the oil may aggravate Defensive Wei Qi and can cause skin reactions.
- Red Thyme oil A number of blends containing Red Thyme oil have been found to be effective against flu viruses. Researchers found that influenza virus infectivity was suppressed by a blend containing Red Thyme oil in a dose-dependent manner.
- Tea Tree oil (melaluca) is effective in killing flu virus strains within 5 to 10 minutes of exposure. Researchers found that nebulizing Tea Tree oil for only two seconds destroyed viral cells and cleared all airborne viral cells within 15 minutes. The researchers claim that Tea Tree oil is “capable of inactivating captured (viral) microorganisms within 5–10 min of contact on the … surface”.
- Researchers have also studied commercial blends of essential oils and found that these blends also significantly reduced the influenza virus’ ability to spread. Two of these essential oil blends that have been shown to inhibit viral growth contain cinnamon bark, blue gum, and rosemary essential oils (Brochot et al 2016). One of the blends additionally contains clove bud and sweet orange essential oils. This second blend also inhibited viral protein production.
Dr. Basdavanos recommends using a blend of Geranium, Juniper, and either Melissa or Eucalyptus oil (not both), and applying this blend to specific acupoints. (For those who are familiar, these are points GB 20 back of head, LI 11 elbow crease, LI 4 web of thumb, St 40 half way down the leg (lateral), St 36 just below the knee (lateral), and at the tip of the index and thumb. During private sessions with Dr. Basdavanos, he can administer these oils directly as appropriate.)
Most flu and other viruses spread by airborne droplets, or close contact with an infected person or other object that is contaminated with the virus. Most viruses can remain viable on objects for up to 48 hours. COVID19 remains viable for approximately1 week from contamination; hence hand washing and other techniques to minimize spread are important steps in prevention. The CDC recommends using alcohol (60% or greater), hydrogen peroxide, and soap to disinfect. Many essential oils have also proven effective in killing viruses. The advantage being that these oils can be atomized into the air, killing viruses and also bacteria, without toxic effects for people. Researchers conclude that “some of these oil vapors could have therapeutic benefits for people suffering from influenza, and possibly other membrane containing respiratory viruses.”
While the use of essential oils on COVID 19 has not yet been proven effective, the mechanisms by which these oils work against other viruses suggest that they may have potential in reducing or eliminating this virus on surfaces. Given the minimal risks and the potential benefit of essential oils to eliminate influenza viruses, the use of atomizing essential oils warrants consideration and further research.
Before using essential oils, check for any sensitivity to inhaled oils, and if you prefer, leave the room for 30 minutes while diffusing, and then air the room briefly after treatment. Many people enjoy the aromas of these oils. Since a number of oils and blends may be effective, choose oils whose scent you prefer.
It’s no wonder that for thousands of years, people have sought and used precious essential oils to prevent illness and to maintain health and well-being. Seasonal outbreaks of flu and related viruses are an ongoing major health concern. Different strains of influenza quickly mutate to become resistant to available treatments and new viral outbreaks such as COVID 19 continue to develop. Few if any satisfactory therapeutic agents are available for the control of Influenza virus, largely because of the continual emergence of drug-resistant mutants. Essential oils provide a complex mixture of chemical constituents that interfere with all stages of viral life cycles. While the outbreak of COVID19 is too recent for research on the use of essential oils against this specific viral strain, numerous existing studies demonstrate the mechanisms by which essential oils and their chemical constituents block viral activity in general. These results suggest that essential oils may potentially be useful in reducing the spread of viruses, such as COVID19, and warrant further research. Given the potential benefits against other known viral strains and minimal risks, it may be worth considering the use of essential oils as an ongoing seasonal practice. Researchers conclude that “some of these oil vapors could have therapeutic benefits for people suffering from influenza, and possibly other membrane containing respiratory viruses.”
There are two basic methods for using essential oils:
- Inhalation: This is easiest done by using a room diffuser, or by floating oils in hot water and inhaling the vapors.
- Application to the skin: Topical application of essential oils should always be done by mixing them with a carrier oil, such as jojoba oil, olive oil, or nut oil. They can be massaged onto your body or put into lotions and bath products.
Most essential oils are generally recognized as safe in certain concentrations by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA). However, people should use all oils with caution. You can try using essential oils on your own, but current medical standards suggest that it is best to get advice from an aromatherapist or an alternative healthcare practitioner first.
Many essential oils are not processed in a way to make them safe to consume orally. Some essential oils made by DoTerra and Young Living may be safe for oral consumption, however check with the manufacturer before consuming orally.
Essential oils may cause serious adverse side effects if used incorrectly. As with prescription medications, essential oils can cause adverse side effects if taken improperly or in excessive amounts.
Potential hazards of essential oils include:
- Irritation of the skin or mucous membrane: Infants, young children, older adults, and people with sensitive skin may be more likely to experience skin problems from essential oils.
- Drug and supplement interactions: Essential oils can interact with prescription medications and supplements, so it is always a good idea to talk to a doctor before using them.
- Photosensitivity: Some essential oils, such as bergamot, make the skin more sensitive to sunlight. This could lead to severe sunburn if individuals are exposed to sunlight or a tanning booth within 24 hours of treatment.
- Women who are pregnant are frequently advised to avoid using essential oils due to the possibility of active ingredients crossing the placenta.
- Wintergreen oil can be used safely on the skin, but it can be dangerously toxic if swallowed.
- Although eucalyptus can be helpful for flu symptoms if inhaled, it can also cause seizures if swallowed.
- Anyone with potential allergies should be cautious when using essential oils, as they can cause serious reactions.
- Keep essential oils away from the eyes and open flames. Remember that essential oils, as with all medications, should be kept out of the reach of children and pets.
- Many essential oils are dangerous for pets, especially cats, so people should research which oils are non-toxic for animals before infusing them at home. Some oils may be useful for treating specific conditions in pets, so check with an expert.
Dr. Mike Basdavanos is a Medical Qigong Therapist, Dpl. in Asian Bodywork Therapy, NCCAOM, CAOBTA, and a licensed massage therapist. He provides Medical Qigong and Shiatsu therapy at The Mindfulness Center in Bethesda, Maryland. Mike received Taoist ordination (Tian Ming) from Master Wang Yen-nien and permission to teach Taijiquan and meditation from Master Wang. Mike earned his doctorate degree in Medical Qigong with Ted Cibik, Ph.D., N.D., D.M.Q.; and is a student of John Cole, L.Ac.