How to Use Essential Oils for Colds

By Arielle Mitton
Medically reviewed checkmarkMedically reviewed
January 20, 2022

It’s called the “common” cold for a reason: Catching a cold every so often is inevitable—especially during the winter months. Most American adults have 2-3 colds per year

And when you have a cold—whether you’re experiencing a sore throat, cough, or runny nose—you want it gone…fast.

So it’s natural to want to pull out every remedy in the book to boost your immune system and get over your cold faster.

Essential oils are a popular natural at-home remedy that may actually help.

While some essential oils are known to help with specific cold symptoms such as congestion, others may also have general wellness benefits, such as promoting relaxation before bedtime. 

In this article, I’ll explore what essential oils are, and their usefulness for alleviating cold symptoms.

I’ll describe the potential benefits of specific oils, and explain how to use them.

I’ll also provide some warnings about risks with essential oils, and tell you when it’s best to consult with a doctor.

What are Essential Oils?

Essential oils are plant extracts—in other words, the “essence” of a plant.

These oils are made by either steaming or pressing particular parts of a plant to gather highly potent, concentrated compounds.

These compounds capture the plant’s natural scent, flavor, or other properties.

Depending on the plant, some essential oils may have additional qualities, such as antimicrobial, antiviral, antifungal, and antibacterial properties. 

Essential oils are incredibly potent; it can take several pounds of any given plant to produce a small bottle of essential oil.

For instance, an acre of lavender produces close to 1,800 pounds of dried lavender flowers.

All those flowers make just a measly 2 gallons of essential oil. 

Due to this high potency, most essential oils on the market are combined with a carrier oil, such as coconut, jojoba, or argan oil.

These help dilute the potency of essential oils and make it safe to “carry” the essential oil to the skin.

Without the carrier oil, the pure essential oil is likely to irritate the skin.

You may also find essential oil blends sold at stores.

These mix two or more essential oils with similar benefits or complementary scents.

For example, peppermint essential oil and eucalyptus essential oil are known to help open up airways, so you might find an essential oil blend with these two oils pre-packaged together in a bottle.

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Potential Benefits of Using Essential Oils for Colds

Certain essential oils can help alleviate some of the most common cold symptoms, including:

There is limited medical research that proves essential oils can alleviate cold symptoms.

But the findings so far are positive.

One study of 60 people with a sore throat and cough found that patients who received an essential oil spray reported greater improvement in symptom severity compared to those who received a placebo spray. 

A review that analyzed the findings of several studies concluded that essential oils may be a beneficial treatment method for adults with upper respiratory tract infections, the common cold, or with flu symptoms.

Below, you’ll find the best essential oils for common cold symptoms. 

Essential OilBenefits
Clary Sage• Decongestant 
• Stress reduction
• Alleviates runny nose
• Antimicrobial
Chamomile • Reduces congestion
• Reduces pain and swelling (anti-inflammatory)
• Soothes stomach pain
• Promotes calming effects
Cinnamon• Immune support
• Antiviral
• Antifungal
• Antioxidant
Eucalyptus• Sinus relief
• Reduces chest congestion
• Pain and soreness relief
• Antiviral
• Antimicrobial
• Anti-inflammatory
Frankincense• Reduces cough
• Bronchitis
Anti-inflammatory
Geranium• Relieves cough
LavenderStress reduction
• Relieves fatigue, depression, and headaches
Lemon• Reduces cough
• Reduces congestion
• Alleviates body aches and swollen glands (anti-inflammatory)
• Antibacterial
• Antiviral
Peppermint• Reduces congestion
• Relieves sore throat
• Reduces cough
• Provides allergy relief
Rosemary• Decongestant
• Anti-inflammatory
Tea Tree• Provides congestion relief
• Relieves sore throat
• Antiviral
• Antimicrobial

How to Use Essential Oils

The benefits an essential oil provides may be more or less potent depending on the application method you choose.

For example, if you are feeling minor aches or swelling, a topical application of lemon oil will be more beneficial than inhalation through a humidifier.

Most importantly, never consume essential oils.

Although you may find recipes online that suggest this, essential oils are incredibly potent and are not safe to consume. 

Below, you’ll find safe, recommended methods for using essential oils. 

Throat, chest, or sinus massage

If you’re experiencing cold symptoms in a localized area, such as the throat, chest, or sinuses, try a light massage with essential oils externally on your skin.

Remember, essential oils are incredibly potent and can irritate the skin if applied without a carrier oil.

Use essential oils with one of the following carrier oils:

  • Coconut oil
  • Olive oil
  • Jojoba oil
  • Almond oil
  • Argan oil
  • Avocado oil
  • Grapeseed oil
  • Rosehip oil
  • Hemp seed oil

When massaging the sinus and throat area, take care to avoid the areas around the eyes and mouth.

You don’t want essential oils to drip into your eyes or mouth. 

Humidifier or diffuser

A humidifier or diffuser are popular ways to use essential oils.

Year-round, people enjoy the aromatherapy benefits of essential oils dropped into a diffuser.

When you have a cold, using essential oils in a humidifier (or a diffuser that adds moisture to the air, like a humidifier) can help provide symptom relief.

The essential oil is dispersed in the air, so any essential oils with antibacterial, antimicrobial, or antifungal properties can help keep the air around you clean.

If you’re struggling with congestion or a dry cough, increasing the humidity in your room may help alleviate symptoms, though research on the benefits of using a humidifier are inconclusive.

Using an essential oil that is known to act as a decongestant, like eucalyptus oil, could provide extra relief.

Inhalation

To inhale essential oils, you can either sniff the bottle directly or add a few drops to a clean cotton ball, handkerchief, or towel.

This should help clear up nasal passages.

Depending on the essential oil you use, it may also help with congestion or promote relaxation before bedtime. 

Baths

Adding a few drops in the tub is a good way to reap the benefits of essential oils.

Lavender essential oil is a popular choice for relaxation.

Chamomile, eucalyptus, and lemon essential oils are good choices to ease muscle tension and provide relief from aches, soreness, and general cold symptoms. 

Warm compress

Adding a few drops of essential oils to a warm compress works well if you’re experiencing symptoms in a particular area of your body.

For example, if you feel aches or muscle soreness, then a warm compress with lemon or eucalyptus oil may provide relief. 

Risks and Warnings

Be aware of these potential risks before using essential oils for cold symptom relief. 

  • Potency: People often underestimate how potent essential oils are. A little goes a long way—avoid using a concentrated amount. In most cases, 2–5 drops should suffice. Always use essential oil that has been mixed with a carrier oil if you plan to apply oils topically. Avoid essential oils around sensitive areas, like the eyes, and do not consume essential oils.
  • Pregnancy: There is not a lot of research about the safety of essential oils for young children or pregnant women. If you are pregnant or breastfeeding, avoid using essential oils unless directed by your doctor. 
  • Pets: Cats, dogs, and other domestic pets may not react well to essential oils. In fact, some essential oils are toxic to them. Depending on the type of oil and your pet’s sensitivity, even being around a humidifier with essential oils can cause a negative reaction. 
  • Quality: Essential oils should always be packaged in glass bottles to prolong shelf life and reduce the risk of contamination. If your essential oil comes packaged in a plastic bottle, that should be a red flag that raises suspicion. 
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When to See a Doctor

Essential oils can be a great way to manage cold symptoms naturally—but they are not a medical treatment or cure.

If your cold symptoms continue for more than 10 days or suddenly worsen, talk to your primary care physician as soon as possible. 

Additionally, seek immediate medical attention if you experience any of the following symptoms:

How K Health Can Help

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Frequently Asked Questions

What is the most effective essential oil for a cold?
This depends on the cold symptoms you are experiencing. Chamomile and lemon oil provide a range of benefits that make them a good "all-around" choice. If you have a runny nose, you may want to try eucalyptus. If you're experiencing a lot of congestion, you may want to try peppermint oil. Consult the chart above to see which essential oil will help alleviate your cold symptoms the best.
Can essential oils break up mucus?
Some essential oils, like eucalyptus and peppermint oil, can help break up mucus. Eucalyptus oil contains eucalyptol, a key ingredient that is used in many over-the-counter (OTC) chest rubs. Peppermint oil contains menthol, an ingredient used in OTC topical rubs to relieve congestion. These oils can help break up and loosen mucus to provide congestion relief.
Can essential oils make cold sores go away?
Tea tree oil, peppermint oil, lemon oil, and eucalyptus oil are a few essential oils that can be used to help heal cold sores. These essential oils have antiviral properties that may help make cold sores go away faster.

K Health articles are all written and reviewed by MDs, PhDs, NPs, or PharmDs and are for informational purposes only. This information does not constitute and should not be relied on for professional medical advice. Always talk to your doctor about the risks and benefits of any treatment.

K Health has strict sourcing guidelines and relies on peer-reviewed studies, academic research institutions, and medical associations. We avoid using tertiary references.

Arielle Mitton

Dr. Mitton is a board certified internal medicine physician with over 6 years of experience in urgent care and additional training in geriatric medicine. She completed her trainings at Mount Sinai Hospital and UCLA. She is on the board of the Hyperemesis Research Foundation to help women suffering from hyperemesis gravidarum.