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Aromatherapy for Colds and Flu

I originally published this article a few years ago but thought it would be good to have it here too. Remember that when using essential oils, they need to be treated with respect as they contain powerful chemicals that is used inappropriately or undiluted on the skin, can cause serious health risks.

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. I picked up an excellent information booklet at my local doctor’s surgery recently, written by Help the Aged., called “Fight the Flu”. It talks about flu as an unwelcome visitor and that flu is nothing new, having been around for thousands of years. The worst outbreak in history was the epidemic of 1918-1919 when over 228,000 people died in this country alone (Johnson 2015).

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

They are actually both contagious viral infections of the respiratory tract. 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) (WebMD 2015). 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 of 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 (WebMD 2015). 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. With the flu, it is usually over after a few days.

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 "Government's Flu Plan for winter 2015/16" (NHS England 2015) lays out the importance of offering the vaccine for at least 75% of healthcare workers with direct patient contact and for children and pregnant women. The flu jab is repeated annually, usually around October of each year. Despite what people may think, you cannot get flu from the flu jab as there is no live virus in the vaccine

General Advice for flu sufferers

It is 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 not spread it around even further. As a therapist, you should never treat others when you are unwell or put your patients at risk. Obviously, you need to increase your fluid intake that will be lost through sweating. 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 of course some excellent essential oils in the Myrtaceae plant family group that are in fact anti-viral and can help combat flu, but also if used regularly at this time of year, 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 bud 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 or Ravensara. It is a gentler aroma but it is still an effective anti-viral oil. Note that it is important not to use the same oil all the time as overuse can also lead to problems; so mix them around a bit.

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. It is important not to put your face directly into the vapours.

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. Remember though that you should not use Eucalyptus oil on anyone under the age of 6 years of age, especially around the face.

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. Marjoram is contraindicated in pregnancy.

How to use an aromatic bath

Add the oils after you have run the bath, up to 10 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 but only use very safe oils and only use 1 drop. 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; again not suitable for children), 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 have a health condition or are taking medications, consult a qualified aromatherapist before using essential oils. They will also be able to create safe blends for you to use at home, which will cost less that buying all the essential oils yourself.


I offera diploma courses in aromatherapy that is accredited by Complementary Health Professionals. These are blended learning courses where the theory is done at home and the courses are all modular so you can study at your own pace. Easy payment is available as you pay as you go. You have to attend workshops to learn the practical skills of an aromatherapist and these are available regularly. The course is benchmarked to the National Occupational Standards and the Aromatherapy Council's Core Curriculum. However, if you just want to study the essential oil theory and not the massage then we also have a diploma course entitled "Essential Oil Practitioner". This is everything in the aromatherapy course except the massage elements and you can join our professional association after and gain insurance to practice making blends for clients after taking a detailed consultation.


Aromatherapy for Health Professionals, Shirley & Len Price 1999.

“Fight the Flu” Guide booklet from Help the Aged

Johnson B, 2015 The Spanish Flu pandemic of 1918 found at

NHS England Flu Plan Winter 2015/16 available at:

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

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