By Sue Hubbard, M.D.
With kids heading back to school, coughs, colds (and eventually, flu) are just around the corner. Recently, a patient asked me about the use of essential oils. Her 2-1/2-year-old daughter is heading to preschool for the first time and she'd heard from her friends "that essential oils help a child's immunity during cold season."
Unfortunately, there's very little data to confirm that statement. I only wish that rubbing on a bit of lavender oil would help prevent the common cold. While they may smell great and be relaxing, I can find no data to indicate that there's any reproducible science behind claims that essential oils boost the immune system.
While I was researching the issue, I found many web 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!). Alas, I haven't found data to support any of this.
The word "essential" refers to the essence of the plants the oils are derived from - rather than the oils being "essential" to your health. While in most cases essential oils (which are highly concentrated) used for aromatherapy are not harmful for adults, it may be a different story for children, especially those under the age of 6.
While labels for these products may use the word "natural," that doesn't always mean safe. Many such 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 published articles stating that the use of menthol (Vicks) on a child's feet may be helpful for reducing a cough associated with a cold, do not use this product for children young enough to put their feet in their mouth.
I must say that I sometimes 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 send calming messages to respiratory center, is not clear. But, I'm not ingesting the oil or using it topically.
Dr. Sue Hubbard is an award-winning pediatrician, medical editor and media host. "The Kid's Doctor" TV feature can be seen on more than 90 stations across the U.S. Submit questions at http://www.kidsdr.com. The Kid's Doctor e-book, "Tattoos to Texting: Parenting Today's Teen," is now available from Amazon and other e-book vendors.
This column was printed in the October 5, 2014 - October 18, 2014 edition.