Most of the time, you can treat influenza at home with plenty of rest, liquids, and perhaps some OTC (over-the-counter) medication.
And if you prefer natural remedies, there are plenty of things you can try. However, not everything is proven to help, and some natural remedies can cause harm or side effects.
When it comes to essential oils, some of these plant extracts have been studied and shown to be effective for decreasing symptoms associated with viral illnesses, while others have no research to show that they help with the flu or colds.
With so many different essential oils available, in this article, we will first break down the best oils for fighting flu symptoms.
Then we’ll discuss the precautions and risks of using essential oils, followed by other flu remedies to help you achieve relief from your symptoms.
Top Essential Oils for Flu
There are many ways to use essential oils as flu and common cold remedies:
- Inhalation: This is the easiest way to use essential oils. You can inhale from the bottle directly or put some drops onto a cotton ball, tissue, or towel and breathe in the scent from there. Inhaling essential oils typically helps to open up the airways, much like vapor rub does.
- Diffusion: Add a few drops of essential oil to a diffuser. This device will disperse the oil into the air so you can breathe it in.
- Bathing: Add essential oils to a hot bath as another way to inhale them.
- Compresses: Make a hot compress with a washcloth or heating pad, then add a few drops of essential oils for headache, back pain, or other aches and pains.
- Massage: Essential oils can irritate or burn the skin if used directly. Dilute them by adding a few drops to a carrier oil such as almond or coconut oil, then massage directly onto your skin. Since essential oils come from plants, if you are allergic to any types of plants, pollen, or other outdoor irritants, do a small skin test before widely applying to avoid any possible allergic reactions.
Of all the essential oils available, the ones below have shown some benefits for addressing flu-related symptoms.
Keep in mind: Home remedies for the flu don’t replace medical care, and essential oils are not medication—they should never be internally ingested.
Eucalyptus oil comes from the leaves of the eucalyptus tree. This strongly scented oil has antiviral, anti-inflammatory, and antibacterial properties, though it should never be swallowed or used internally.
No research has proven that use of eucalyptus oil, or any essential oil, fights viruses in the body or decreases the length of your illness.
However, research suggests that eucalyptus oil is particularly good for respiratory viruses and may inactivate viruses in the air (great to potentially protect you if a housemate is ill) and help clear phlegm if you’re sick.
Bergamot, an essential oil that comes from citrus fruit rinds, has antiviral properties in lab tests. In one study, after only 10 minutes, the vapor of diffused bergamot essential oil significantly reduced the growth of the influenza virus.
This has not been shown to decrease the virus in your body if you are already sick, or reduce your symptoms, but diffusing the oil in your home may help reduce viruses in the air or on surfaces.
Cinnamon essential oil is antibacterial and antifungal and also has antiviral properties. When paired with other essential oils, one study found that cinnamon was able to reduce viral particles and decrease infection in animal cells.
This has not been shown to treat any disease in humans, and cinnamon oil should never be ingested, but diffusing or inhaling it might have therapeutic effects.
Lemon essential oil is made from lemon peel and has the same strong, vibrant smell as fresh lemons. Because of its antiviral properties, lemon oil may be a good disinfectant to protect against the flu and other airborne viruses.
Another classic scent, peppermint has antibacterial and antioxidant properties. Menthol, the main compound in peppermint, may help suppress cough and, the topical application of peppermint oil may alleviate pain, including the pain of headaches.
Many people also use peppermint essential oil as a decongestant, although other research suggests that it actually increases nasal congestion.
Tea tree essential oil is made from the leaves of Melaleuca alternifolia, a small tree originally found in Australia.
Tea tree oil has been found to have antiviral and antimicrobial properties, and may be able to inactivate airborne viruses when applied to an air filter. Diffuse tea tree oil in your home or use it in a diluted cleansing formula to clean household surfaces.
Precautions and Risks
Natural remedies like essential oils may seem healthy, but keep in mind that the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) does not regulate the use of essential oils.
There is no certification program that guarantees purity, potency, or absence of contaminants.
Reputable companies should have clearly identified ingredients on the label that contain the plant ingredient, usually with the formal Latin name and extraction process, as well as the potency.
Essential oils can cause allergic reactions or irritate the skin, so always use a carrier oil. Also be mindful of sun exposure since some can increase the risk of serious sunburn.
Never ingest essential oils or use them near or on the eyes, and keep them out of the reach of children.
Ask a pediatrician before using essential oils topically on young children.
Some essential oils can be poisonous if inhaled or ingested by children, even in small doses.
Many essential oils are not considered safe during pregnancy because they have not been studied and it is not known if they may cross the placenta.
Essential oils may be flammable. Do not add them to candles, fireplaces, or heaters. Keep them away from all heat sources, aside from diffusers and warmers meant for use with oils
Other Flu Remedies
Other treatments, including over-the-counter (OTC) medications and some natural remedies, have more evidence than essential oils at being effective to treat symptoms of flu:
- Decongestants: These help open the sinuses and especially help with a stuffy nose.
- Throat lozenges: These may help lubricate the throat and provide relief from a sore throat.
- Pain relievers: OTC pain relievers like acetaminophen, ibuprofen, and aspirin can help with headaches and muscle pain from the flu.
- Antihistamines: Diphenhydramine (Benadryl) and other antihistamines may help to clear up the sinuses and relieve nasal congestion.
- Zinc: This mineral has been shown to have antiviral effects, so using zinc lozenges or taking a supplement may help to prevent the flu or shorten the duration of the flu- though no large, high-quality studies have proven zinc to decrease the duration of colds or the flu
- Humidity: Whether you sit over a bowl of hot water and inhale the steam or use a humidifier, adding more moisture to the air can help soothe dry nasal passages and make breathing easier.
When to See a Doctor
You don’t always have to see a doctor for the flu.
However, if you have been sick for longer than a week, or are getting worse after 3-4 days of resting at home, you may want to check in with your doctor.
If your symptoms are not going away after a week or home remedies are not helping to make you feel more comfortable, you may have a different infection or a secondary infection.
If you are experiencing difficulty breathing, are confused, feeling like you will faint, or unable to drink enough fluids to stay hydrated, seek emergency medical care right away.
A healthcare provider can run some simple tests to identify if you have the flu or something else and help set a treatment plan so that you feel better.
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Antibacterial and Antioxidant Activities of Mentha Piperita L. (2015).
Anti-Influenza Virus Activity of Essential Oils and Vapors. (2014).
Bergamot (Citrus Bergamia) Essential Oil Inhalation Improves Positive Feelings in the Waiting Room of a Mental Health Treatment Center: A Pilot Study. (2017).
Cinnamon: A Multifaceted Medicinal Plant. (2014).
Inactivation of Airborne Influenza Virus by Tea Tree and Eucalyptus Oils. (2012).
Menthol: Effects on Nasal Sensation of Airflow and the Drive to Breathe. (2003).
Peppermint Oil in the Acute Treatment of Tension-Type Headache. (2016).
Protective Essential Oil Attenuates Influenza Virus Infection: An In Vitro Study in MDCK Cells. (2010).
The Role of Zinc in Antiviral Immunity. (2019).
Virucidal Activity of Essential Oils From Citrus x aurantium L. Against Influenza A Virus H1N1:Limonene as a Potential Household Disinfectant Against Virus. (2022).