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Aromatherapy for Colds and Flu

Well it is that time of year! Colds and flu are still one of the most common illnesses and one that hits us when our immune system is low, possibly through stress or because we are generally under par. We need to tackle this naturally using age old remedies that really work and do not leave us with any side effects from chemicals that our bodies do not know how to deal with. Aromatherapy is one of the solutions that can help alleviate symptoms and this is the main focus of this article.

What is the difference between a common cold & influenza (flu)?

They are both contagious viral infections of the respiratory tract and there are three main types of influenza (A, B & C) and flu viruses continually change over time, usually by mutation (change in the viral RNA) ( They are both spread via large groups of people, such as in offices and in schools for example, by droplets released in the air when someone with the virus sneezes or coughs. Someone who has flu is usually infectious for about a week. Despite this similarity, getting the flu is far worse than having just a common cold and with flu you are likely to have a fever for several days of 103ºF and your head and body will ache ( Colds can make you feel miserable, but with flu you can literally be knocked off your feet and it can lead to serious diseases, such as pneumonia and bronchitis. Even after the flu has eased (usually after about 7 days), you are often left feeling quite weak and tired for several weeks after.

Orthodox Treatments

Antibiotics are of course useless here as they only treat bacterial infections (although they may be needed if there is a secondary chest or ear infection). In recent years the Flu vaccine (influenza vaccine made from inactivated and sometimes attenuated [non-infective] virus) is specifically recommended by the Department of Health for those who are at high risk for developing serious complications as a result of flu infection. These high-risk groups include all people aged 65 years or older and people of any age with chronic diseases such as respiratory diseases, heart liver or kidney disease, diabetics, those with weakened immune systems, residents of care homes and carers. The flu jab is repeated annually, usually around October of each year. Despite what people may think, we are told that you cannot get flu from the flu jab as there is no live virus in the vaccine; however, there are health risks from receiving vaccinations and there is evidence to suggest that they do not work. Recently it has been announced that all 7 years olds will be getting the flu jab at school but parents can decline this if they wish. The problem is that if you get the flu and haven't had the jab, they tell you it's because you didn't have it. If you catch the flu soon after a jab (as many do) they say it's not connected and if it's a while after, then it must be a different strain - in which case, what was the point? If you are interested in reading more, see and read the article entitled "A shot never worth taking - the Flu vaccine" by Kelly Brogan M.D.

General Advice for cold and flu sufferers

My personal advice is not to use chemicals to suppress your body but to use natural organic products such as essential oils to help your body work through the symptoms. It is important to look at your diet and check that you are recieving the right amount of vitamins and minerals. Vitamin C intake is very important as is Vitamin D and Omega 3 to boost your immune system so always ensure you take supplements throughout the winter months. It is also wise to rest when you have the flu, despite all the remedies on the market to help keep you at work! You really need to take to bed and sweat it out as your body needs to expel it. As a therapist, you should never treat others when you are unwell or put your clients at risk. Obviously you need to increase your fluid intake that will be lost through sweating. The best drinks are also natural; try adding manuka honey, lemon juice and pieces of sliced ginger to hot water and sip. As you start to recover, avoid alcohol and make sure you eat well and try to exercise gently, such as going for a walk.

Aromatherapy Self Treatments

There are some excellent essential oils in the Myrtaceae plant family group that are in fact anti-viral and can help combat flu and if used regularly, can help protect you from becoming infected in the first place. The most well known is Melaleuca alternifolia, common name Tea Tree. I love the fact that even the Latin name lends itself to alternative medicine! If we look at the chemical constituents of Tea Tree oil, we can see that it contains terpen-4-ol, which is what makes it antiviral and a powerful immunostimulant.

I like to vapourise Tea Tree oil with Clove oil (Syzygium aromaticum) as this also has anti-viral properties and I love the aroma of cloves. Clove is anti-viral due to eugenin, present in the buds; eugenin has strong antiviral activity against herpes simplex virus (Takechi, 1981). If you are not fond of the rather medicinal smell of Tea Tree oil, you might like to consider Ravensara aromatica just known as Ravensara. It is a more gentle aroma but it is still an effective anti-viral oil. If you interested in training either as a clinical aromatherapist or an essential oil practitioner (training without the massage element), then please do visit the courses page on our website as we can offer you the finest training where the theory is done online supported by our amazing online learning resources area and a personal tutor.

How to vapourise essential oils

You can either use a ceramic burner (ensure that the bowl for the water is deep enough to outlast the candle burning time) or nowadays, you can buy electric diffusers and light bulb rings. Essential oil suppliers sell these so see a full list on the ATC website under “members”. You need to add 6- 10 drops of your chosen oil to whatever method you use. If you are using a ceramic burner of course fill the top part up with warm water first and drop the essential oils on. The volatile molecules in the essential oil will be carried into the air where you will inhale them into your respiratory (& olfactory) tract.

Another useful oil is Eucalyptus. You can use Eucalyptus globulus or Eucalyptus radiata as a febrifuge to cool a fever with a cold compress. I actually like to blend it with Lime essential oil, another febrifuge and find the uplifting fragrance of Lime to be particularly useful when you are feeling poorly. It always reminds me of Opal Fruits (or Starburst as they are called now). Lime oil contains a high amount of limonene in its chemistry, which has anti-viral properties.

How to make a cold compress

I always use cold water in a metal bowl and add ice cubes. Drop three drops of Eucalyptus and 3 drops of Lime onto the water. As essential oils are not soluble in water they float on the top. Agitate the water slightly and then use a clean flannel, laying it on top of the water to pick up the oil and cold water. Gently squeeze out the excess water so that it does not drip down your face and then apply it to your forehead. Leave it on until the flannel has reached room temperature or no longer feels cool and then repeat the process. You can do this two or three times a day to help bring the fever down.

Another option is to have a nice bath. As well as using oils like Tea Tree or Ravensara, you can also add essential oils that are good for muscular aches and pains and headaches. Marjoram (Origanum marjorana) is great here and blends nicely with good old Lavender (Lavandula angustifolia). Both oils have analgesic properties and are also antispasmodics. Lavender contains linalool in its chemistry, which is antifungal and is a sedative. Blend these two with the Tea Tree (I would suggest 2 drops of each) and the blend will also help relax you enough to have a bit of a sleep.

How to use an aromatic bath

Add the oils after you have run the bath, up to 6 drops and agitate the water before you get in. If you have sensitive skin, it is better to dilute the oils in vodka or bath dispersing oil first. Some books suggest using vegetable oil to dilute the essential oils in, but I find this rather dangerous as it makes the bath really slippery, especially for the elderly or disabled.

The final option is steam inhalations. These are great for everyone, with the exception of asthmatics and young children. I would suggest a bath for young children as they will inhale the vapours that way too. If you use this method with disabled or elderly people, ensure you assist them and hold the bowl. It is very important that you keep your eyes shut the whole time. The best oils to use when you have a cold are Eucalyptus and Thyme (Thymus vulgaris), which contains thymol and carvacrol in its chemistry, more powerful immunostimulants. Eucalyptus contains 1,8 cineole, which has the properties that make Eucalyptus mucolytic, in other words helps loosen up the mucus. Eucalyptus is effective against airborne viruses and bacteria. “The oil has antibacterial and expectorant properties” (Maruzella & Henry, Prakash cited by Price & price 1999).

How to do a steam inhalation.

Place hot (not boiling) water in a bowl. Drop 3 drops of each oil onto the water. Lean over the bowl, being very careful and place a towel over your head. Keeping your eyes closed so that the strong vapours do not irritate your eyes, inhale deeply for as long as is comfortable. Repeat several times.

The great thing about being an aromatherapist is that we don’t get colds and flu very often because we are using essential oils all the time and this helps us fight it off. That is why this piece is not written for aromatherapists but for everyone else! Try these simple methods and stay well this winter. If you are pregnant or taking medications, consult a qualified clinical aromatherapist before using essential oils and never take them internally.


Aromatherapy for Health Professionals, Shirley & Len Price 1999.

Takechi M.; Chemical Abstracts, vol. 95, 1981

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