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Aromatherapy relief for smoky air

There are fires all along the west coast this September. It breaks my heart to see so many people and creatures lose their homes, and become displaced and affected by these fires.

In Western Washington where I live the smoke is making so many of us uncomfortable so I want to give some suggestions to help make this a little easier to cope with. I hope this helps you.

Aromatherapy can really help here. I’ve been listening to what you are experiencing and have been hearing about these issues the most:

  • difficulty breathing
  • stuffy, congested sinuses
  • headache
  • sore throat
  • cough
  • irritated, dry eyes
  • dizzy/lightheaded/brain fog
  • nausea
  • Emotional distress

There are also some herbs that can help. One of my favorite resources for herbal information is the Commonwealth Center for Holistic Herbalism. Check out this podcast episode for some herbal recommendations in the context of wildfire smoke inhalation. From there, you can search their website for other issues to find more herbal recommendations.

A word on safety

Essential oils come from natural materials, and they are very potent. Most are very safe if used correctly. Some of the essential oils I mention here (eucalyptus and essential oils high in the molecule 1,8 cineole, and peppermint) are not recommended for children 5 and younger, and should be used with caution and very low amounts (approx. 6 drops to an ounce of carrier oil such as grapeseed or jojoba) with children 12 and younger. People who are pregnant or nursing, as well as people with significant medical conditions should also use caution. For more information, please see the section on safety in this blog post on sharing essential oils responsibly.

It is possible to overuse essential oils – if you are using an inhalation method and overdo it, you could get rebound congestion, headache, or lightheadedness. If you overdo it with a topical application you could have a skin reaction, but if you use appropriate dilution into a carrier oil (a fatty oil such as grapeseed, coconut, olive, or apricot oil) it will reduce that risk. Keep in mind also that if you are breathing in more pollutants than usual, your body has more work to do to get rid of those toxins, and still will need to metabolize the essential oils that you take in, so working with them intermittently as needed can be very helpful, rather than something like all-day diffusing.

Avoid applying essential oils in the eyes, ears, internally, and other sensitive areas. If you need to remove essential oil from the skin, use soap and water. If it gets in the eyes, a cloth with a fatty oil on a closed eye might help draw out some of the essential oils, but according to Robert Tisserand, who co-authored Essential Oil Safety 2nd Edition, the best way to treat eyes exposed to essential oils is to flush them with water. Here is a great post from Tisserand Institute about what to do in the case of adverse reaction.

The dilution guidelines I mention here are very general, and less can be used, but do not use more if the blend is for children. If you do not feel enough relief after about 15 to 30 minutes, you could try repeating the same application or trying another application, or in the case of a topical blend, you can try a stronger application.

Do not diffuse all day or for hours on end, and make sure to consider pets, children, and those who might be more sensitive to essential oils. Make sure pets are able to leave the area if they don’t like the essential oils you are diffusing.

A very beneficial molecule:

Essential oils that are high in a molecule called 1,8 cineole are very beneficial for so many of these issues. Oils like Eucalyptus radiata or Eucalyptus globulus, Rosemary ct (chemotype) 1,8 cineole, Cardamom, Laurel leaf, Spike Lavender, and Ravintsara (Cinnamomun camphora ct. 1,8 cineole) contain this molecule and have an affinity with the respiratory system.

Research shows 1,8 cineole can ease coughing and shortness of breath, help break up mucus and expel it from the lungs and throat, and reduce bronchial inflammation. 1,8 cineole can also ease pain and inflammation in general, increase blood flow to the brain, and ease sinus congestion. There are some safety considerations that are very important to keep in mind for 1,8 cineole. It is best to avoid essential oils high in 1,8 cineole such as eucalyptus with children 5 and younger, and use with caution and very low amounts with children ages 5-12. Other essential oils that are safe for children (all essential oils should be worked with in smaller amounts for children 12 and younger) are Cedarwood, Frankincense, and White Fir. Also, caution should be used if a person has asthma, because this molecule can trigger an asthma attack. A person with asthma should test a very small amount first and check for tightness in the chest or difficulty breathing.

How to:

I’ve created a table with some essential oil and hydrosol suggestions for the issues I listed above, and I will describe some ways you can work with these. The stars in the chart indicate some of my favorite choices. You can use the chart as a guide to help choose which essential oil to try for the symptom you are experiencing. There are many essential oils not listed here that can help, but it would have been very time consuming to list them all! This is not an absolute, but a starting place. You can combine oils from the table to customize your blend and address mind, body, and spirit. If you have questions, feel free to comment or contact me. The first step is to move to safety and to an environment with less hazardous air if that is possible. Also, stay hydrated so that your body can more easily rid itself of the toxins. Your body will need quite a bit of time to eliminate the toxins from the smoke/pollutants in the air so it will be important to continue to support your body in doing this for months.

Difficulty Breathing: It is important to reduce your exposure to the pollutants in the air as much as you can, and have air purifiers running where you live or work. The essential oils that can help increase the feeling of more open airways are ones high in the molecule 1,8 cineole, and many of the essential oils that come from trees. The kind of breathing difficulty I’m talking about here is caused by poor air quality, not the kind that is a result of chronic illness or cardio-pulmonary issues. Please seek medical attention if you suspect a cause other than irritation to the lungs. If you have asthma, this is not supposed to be a replacement for your asthma inhalers.

Application: You can inhale the essential oil from a tissue or cloth, or you can add a few drops to a diffuser or personal inhaler (different from what people use for asthma, a personal aroma inhaler is a small tube with a cotton wick that holds essential oils). If you don’t have a diffuser, or essential oils, you can simmer some herbs like Rosemary, Peppermint, or Basil, or conifer needles in water for an hour at a time (don’t leave it unattended!). You can also benefit from inhalation from a topical application of essential oils added to a carrier oil and rubbed onto the neck or chest. I recommend 10 to 12 drops of essential oil per ounce of carrier oil for adults and 5-6 drops per ounce of carrier for children. You can add a calming oil like lavender (to reduce stress or anxiety that sometimes accompanies breathing problems), but keep the maximum number of drops the same.

Sinus Congestion: The essential oils I have recommended have decongesting and anti-inflammatory properties.

Application: Inhalation is recommended here – a personal inhaler or a steam inhalation will give you the fastest results. Please see this blog post for instructions for steam inhalation.

Headache: There are so many things that can cause a headache, and so many possible approaches, but inhalation will most likely work fastest for the kind of headache that is caused by insufficient oxygen or congestion as a result of poor air quality.

Application: A personal inhaler or steam inhalation could be helpful in this case. Essential oils high in 1,8 cineole can help with congestion or by increasing blood flow to the brain. If the headache is caused by stress, working with a relaxing essential oil such as lavender, cedarwood, or sandalwood can help, either through inhalation or diluted in a carrier oil and massaged into one’s neck and temples.

Sore Throat: There are a couple of approaches, but when working with essential oils, the best way to address this is topically. You can also try a soothing herbal tea (without essential oils) or a syrup made with honey or maple syrup and herbs. This blog post has a recipe for a soothing syrup.

Application: Dilute the essential oil(s) into a carrier oil or unscented lotion or cream (10 to 12 drops per ounce for adults, 5-6 drops per ounce for children) and rub into the front and back of the neck. The best essential oils for this application ease pain and inflammation. The essential oils will penetrate into the skin and tissues. You can add a little bit of orange essential oil to increase the absorption (or a different citrus, as long as you take phototoxicity into consideration – you can read more about phototoxicity in the safety section of this blog post).

Cough: Sometimes coughing is necessary to get stuff out of our lungs that doesn’t belong there, but if it is unproductive or prevents sleep, we need to address it. If a cough is unproductive, there are herbs you can work with as tea or tinctures, to help make the cough productive. The 1,8 cineol-rich essential oils can help break up mucus and discharge it from the respiratory system. If the cough is preventing sleep and needs to be suppressed, Sandalwood, Cypress (Cupressus sempervirens), and Lavender (Lavendula angustifolia) can help suppress the spasms. Sandalwood and Lavender can help calm the body for sleep. Several species of Sandalwood are at risk (especially Santalum album from India) but there are some that are sustainably sourced, including an Australian species Santalum spicatum, and a Santalum album species that are now being cultivated in Australia.

Application: For breaking up and expelling mucus, a steam inhalation could help. If your sinuses or throat and lungs are sensitive from irritation, this could be uncomfortable, and if it is, discontinue the steam. For calming the cough for sleep, I recommend making a topical blend in carrier oil or unscented lotion or cream to rub into the chest and neck for longer-lasting benefits. A bath may also help. You can either add 5-10 drops of essential oils (but NOT peppermint, oregano, thyme, cinnamon, or cassia as they will likely cause discomfort) to a carrier and add it to the bath water (but be very careful as the tub will be slippery) or you can add the essential oil-carrier blend to bath salt. You can also use a personal inhaler – I keep one under my pillow when I need one to help with sleep.

Irritated or dry eyes: Since I never recommend putting essential oils in the eyes, my go-to is hydrosols. Hydrosols are the water product that is produced when plants are distilled and they contain many beneficial components from the plants, but at very small quantities – rarely more than 1%. See my blog post on hydrosols for more information and resources. I like to get my hydrosols from Aromatics International or Stillpoint Aromatics. (I do not receive compensation for mentioning these businesses, but I trust their quality and use many of their products)

Application: Add some Cornflower or German Chamomile hydrosol to a cloth or cotton and hold it gently onto closed eyes for several minutes. This can help soothe the eyes and add hydration. Commonwealth Center for Holistic Herbalism’s podcast 117 has information for herbal compresses for eyes, if you do not have access to hydrosols.

Dizzy/lightheaded/brain fog: Here is another time when 1,8 cineole shines, as it helps to increase blood flow to the brain. It can enhance attentiveness, alertness, and focus.

Application: A personal inhaler or diffuser are great ways to work with essential oils for this purpose.

Nausea: Excessive exposure to air pollutants including smoke can cause nausea. Peppermint, Ginger, Cardamom, Orange, and Lemon are all helpful here (avoid peppermint if this is for a child, or a pregnant or nursing person, and work within safe levels if applying Lemon oil topically to avoid phototoxicity)

Application: The fastest way to get relief from nausea is through inhalation. I recommend smelling one of the recommended essential oils from a personal inhaler or piece of absorbent material like a tissue, cotton ball, or handkerchief. You can also dilute some essential oil in a carrier and apply it to your belly if you are feeling the nausea there.

Emotional distress: Whether it’s the situation or the discomfort that is affecting you emotionally, it’s a real and valid response. Sometimes it’s ok to just sit with the emotions, and sometimes you need something to help you focus, or help you ‘turn it down a notch’. I believe that plants and essential oils all work on both a physical and emotional level. Many are helpful at reducing stress and anxious feelings. The way we interact with the essential oil can help add to the calming experience, whether it’s a bath or massage, or just breathing. In fact, focused breathing can be a great first step. Some of my favorites for stress and anxious feelings are Lavender, Rosemary, Douglas Fir (and other tree oils), Bergamot, and Orange.

Application: Inhalation – personal inhaler, or add a drop to a piece of cloth or cotton and inhale from that, or add to a diffuser. Topical – add essential oils to a carrier oil, unscented lotion, or cream, and massage into hands, feet, shoulders, or where you intuitively feel you need it. Bath – add 5-10 drops essential oils (but NOT peppermint, oregano, thyme, cinnamon, or cassia as they will likely cause discomfort) to a carrier oil and add to bath water or add to bath salt (himalayan pink salt is my favorite) be VERY careful, as this will make the tub slippery.

These statements have not been evaluated by the FDA and are not meant to treat, cure, or diagnose any diseases, conditions, or illness. This is for educational purposes only and should not replace the advice of a medical professional.

Wishing for safety and good health for all

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