Although it is still hot and officially summer, soon everyone will be heading back to school and coughs and colds (and eventually flu, another topic) will be just around the corner. I had a patient ask me about the use of essential oils. Her 2 1/2 year old daughter is heading to preschool for the first time and she "had heard from her friends that essential oils help a child's immunity during cold season".
Unfortunately, there is very little data at all to confirm that statement. I only wish that rubbing a bit of lavender oil on would help prevent the common cold. While it may smell great and be relaxing....there is no data that I can find to show that there is any reproducible science to the claims that essential oils boost the immune system.
While I was researching I found many sites stating that "eucalyptus oil is an anti-viral" and "peppermint oil is an anti-pyretic (fever reducer)". Tea tree oil is touted as being "both anti -bacterial and anti-fungal" (I don't know of other drugs that can claim both!). But, I just don't see any data to support all of this.
The word essential refers to the essence of the plant the oil is derived from, rather than being "essential" to your health. While in most cases essential oils (which are highly concentrated) used as aromatherapy are not harmful for adults, it may be a different story in children, especially those under the age of 6. While labels may say "natural" it may not always mean safe. Many oils are poisonous if ingested and there have been reports of accidental overdoses in children with several different oils. In one report tea tree oil and lavender oil applied topically have been shown to cause breast enlargement in boys. Oil of eucalyptus and peppermint are high in menthol and cineole. These substances may cause children to become drowsy have decreased respirations. While there are articles stating that the use of menthol (Vicks) on a child's feet may be helpful during a cold for reducing a cough, do not use this if child is young enough to put their feet in their mouths.
I must say that I sometime use a few drops of eucalyptus oil in the shower when I have a cold as I think it smells great and seems to help "open up" my head. Whether this is in "my mind" or a response from my olfactory centers which sends calming messages to respiratory center is not clear. But, I am not ingesting it or using it topically.