When we’re sick, we often turn to pharmaceutical products to find a fix, but when we’ve got the flu there isn’t a lot of help out there. For all of modern medicine’s successes, it hasn’t done a great job when it comes to combating the flu virus which causes misery for millions every year.
While effective vaccines for killer viral diseases like smallpox and measles have saved countless lives, it’s so far proved impossible to develop a flu vaccine that provides lifelong protection after just one shot. And the annual flu shot that is available isn’t guaranteed to prevent infection.
The influenza virus regularly mutates and forms new strains. That’s why the flu vaccine that worked on last years strain generally won’t protect against next year’s strain. And why catching the flu one year, won’t protect you from subsequent infections.
Scientists have to make a prediction each year about the strain of flu most likely to be floating around the following year, so a stockpile of vaccine can be produced; sometimes they get it right, sometimes they get it wrong.
Even when infectious disease experts correctly guess the makeup of the next years flu strain, the vaccine developed isn’t 100% effective. In 2017 the CDC reported that the vaccine only had a 48% success rate. And back in 2009, an antigenic shift created a new strain of flu that led to the swine flu pandemic, which that years flu vaccine was powerless to prevent.
Without reliable vaccines or antiviral drugs (virucides), those struck down with the flu are left to manage their symptoms as best they can, fending for themselves unless serious complications warrant medical intervention.
Therefore catching the flu usually means a week or two of aches, pains, shivers, fever, vomiting, congestion, headaches and coughing. And in some cases the flu bug can lead to serious problems like pneumonia in the elderly, the very young and in those with weakened immune systems.
Because the flu is such a debilitating illness, so easy to catch, and one which can’t be successfully avoided – even with annual flu shots – it’s a good idea to take whatever steps you can to protect yourself and your family when flu season rolls around. And this is where essential oils can really help.
Unlike synthetic, over-the-counter flu remedies which can’t tackle the virus and can only ease symptoms (with the risk of side effects), essential oils are a natural option, that when used correctly can combat the infection and address symptoms without causing adverse side effects.
And while the pills and syrups on the pharmacy shelves can leave your wallet feeling significantly lighter, essential oils are incredibly cost effective.
The Role Of Essential Oils In Combatting The Flu Virus
Unlike most pharmaceutical drugs that have one mode of action, essential oils work on multiple fronts, being able to stimulate and strengthen the immune system, tackle the symptoms of the infection that make you feel so unwell, and directly combat the virus itself.
Essential oils are potent plant medicines and they’ve attracted much scientific curiosity and research in recent years. And this research has shown just how effective essential oils can be.
Studies have shown that certain essential oils prevent the virus from replicating (making copies of itself) and stop the virus latching onto and penetrating cell walls.
Of course, practitioners of alternative medicine and those familiar with home remedies have long known how useful essential oils are when it comes to dealing with a whole host of health issues, but it’s always reassuring to know that research backs up the many claims made for essential oils.
Is It the Flu Or Is It a Cold?
Both of these illnesses are caused by viruses and many of the symptoms are the same, however a cold usually get better more quickly and is a less severe illness.
Flu usually involves the following symptoms:
- High fever – over 102 degrees (38 C)
- Body aches and headache
- Sore throat
- Nausea and vomiting
Unlike a cold, which tends to manifest symptoms over a few days, the flu hits fast and hard. The first symptoms are often fever, aches, pains and nausea with the cold like symptoms developing a few days later.
Essential oils can help you battle both illnesses. But because the viruses differ in a fundamental way,, certain essential oils are more effective for colds while others are a better choice when you have the flu.
The main cold virus – the rhinovirus – is an unenveloped or naked virus, whereas the flu virus is enveloped.
Enveloped viruses are most susceptible to essential oils containing the monoterpenes – linalool, citronellol, geraniol, alpha-terpineol, menthol, terpineol – 4, carvacrol, and thymol.
Non enveloped viruses response to treatment with oils containing terpenoid ketones – thuja, pinocarvone, verbenone, and pinocamphone. We’ve written another article which covers those essential oils.
Choosing The Best Flu Busting Essential Oils
Unfortunately there isn’t a single essential oil that will combat the virus and make all of your symptoms go away.. There are however a number of oils that you can use in combination to fight the virus and ease your symptoms.
Antiviral essential oils can act as both a preventive measure to decrease your chances of the virus taking hold, and as a virus killing treatment if you’ve been unlucky enough to catch the flu.
Decongestant and expectorant essential oils will help with the mucus responsible for a stuffy nose, blocked sinuses and chest congestion. Antibacterial oils should also be included if congestion is one of your symptoms because all of that thick sticky mucus is a perfect breeding ground for bacteria.
Analgesic essential oils ease headaches and body pains, while febrifuge oils reduce fever, and immune supporting and strengthening oils give your immune system a helping hand.
And let’s not forget about the essential oils which provide an emotional boost and those which promote restful sleep, because emotional well being plays a big role in immune system function, and feeling more upbeat when you’re ill helps you get through it all.
Antiviral Components In Essential Oils
Antiviral properties are present in a diverse range of plants and their essential oils. When it comes to the compounds that are useful for treating the enveloped influenza virus, the ones with the most benefit are:
- Linalool – found in coriander, eucalyptus, juniper, lavender, niaouli, petitgrain, tea tree, and thyme c.t. Linalool.
- Citronellol – found in geranium and rose.
- Alpha-terpineol – found in eucalyptus and niaouli oil.
- Geraniol – found in palmarosa, rose and geranium.
- Terpineol-4 – found in tea tree, hyssop and sweet marjoram.
- Menthol – found in peppermint and spearmint.
- Monoterpene phenols – carvacrol present in oregano, and thymol found in thyme and oregano.
While these compounds have been identified as being effective at combatting viruses, they are less effective when isolated from the other constituents of essential oils.
Whole essential oils are ten times as effective at killing viruses than their isolated parts.
The myriad components that make up an essential oil support and enhance one another, resulting in potent natural remedies that can’t be synthesized in a lab like many pharmaceutical drugs.
As you can see there’s quite a selection of essential oils to choose from and you can even combine several oils to produce a very potent antiviral blend.
Let’s take a closer look at the most beneficial of these antiviral essential oils.
Coriander (Coriandrum sativum)
Obtained from the seeds of the coriander plant, this essential oil is a pale yellow color with a sweet, spicy aroma.
In addition to being an antiviral oil, coriander also acts to relieve pain, kill bacteria and combat nausea.
Eucalyptus (Eucalyptus radiata)
This essential oil is steam distilled from the leaves of the eucalyptus radiata (or narrow leaved peppermint) tree. It has a warm camphorous odor and is pale in color.
Helpful to reduce fever, coughing, congestion and aches and pains, as well as preventing and combating viruses.
This oil is toxic if ingested, so under no circumstances should you take this oil internally. Also be aware that eucalyptus isn’t suitable for young children as it can cause central nervous system problems and respiratory difficulty in those under 10.
If you can’t find eucalyptus radiata, a good alternative is the more common eucalyptus blue gum (eucalyptus globulus). The same safety restrictions apply for all types of eucalyptus oils.
Geranium (Pelargonium graveolens)
Geranium oil is a sweet floral oil extracted from the leaves of the pretty geranium plant. Color can vary from almost colorless to a pale amber.
Useful attributes include relieving a sore throat and promoting relaxation.
Hyssop (Hyssopus officinalis)
Steam distilled from the leaves and flowers of the hyssop plant, hyssop essential oil has a sweet and spicy herbaceous aroma and is colorless to pale yellow in appearance.
In addition to being an antiviral, hyssop also kills bacteria, preventing or minimizing secondary infections, it lowers fever, acts as an expectorant helping to thin mucus making it easier to expel, and aids sleep.
Not safe for internal use, use by young children or pregnant or breastfeeding women.
This oil can cause skin irritation and should be used at a dilution of 0.3% for topical application. This works out to be 2 drops of oil in one ounce (30 ml) of carrier oil.
Juniper Berry (Juniperus communis)
Sweet and woody, the fragrance of juniper essential oil is pleasant and uplifting and is known to relieve stress and anxiety without causing sleepiness. So if you’re attempting to push on with work while you’re ill, or need to take care of other family members, then juniper is a good alternative to other sedative essential oils like chamomile, lavender and clary sage.
Juniper berry is extracted from the berries of the juniper tree and is a colorless to pale yellow color. Useful for its antitussive (cough suppressing) action, its expectorant properties and its antibacterial effects.
Not suitable for use during pregnancy or by those with kidney disease.
Lavender (Lavandula angustifolia)
Lavender essential oil is distilled from the leaves and flowers of the lavender plant. This oil has a sweet herbaceous aroma and is a colorless to pale yellow color.
Well known for easing stress and aiding restful sleep, lavender oil also has one of the highest concentration of linalool – a potent antiviral. Lavender also acts to relieve pain and kill bacteria.
Niaouli (Melaleuca viridiflora)
Niaouli is a member of the tea tree family of oils. It’s a colorless essential oil with an earthy sweet aroma. Use niaouli for pain relief (not a property in tea tree oil), to ward off secondary bacterial infections, to thin and expel mucus and to soothe a sore throat.
This oil isn’t suitable for use with young children as it can cause central nervous system problems and breathing difficulties.
Oregano (Origanum vulgare)
This is another great choice when you have the flu because it’s such a multifunctional essential oil. It’s also very strong so should only be used at a 1% dilution- less for children and the elderly.
Oregano comes as you would expect from the culinary herb of the same name and has a warm spicy aroma and a pale yellow color.
A strong antiviral, oregano essential oil also works to reduce fever, kill bacteria, ease headaches and general aches and pains, loosen mucus and calm coughing.
Not suitable for use during pregnancy or breastfeeding. May inhibit blood clotting so not to be used by those on blood thinning medications. Should not be used on broken, damaged or sensitive skin or on children under 2 years.
Palmarosa (Cymbopogon martini)
Palmarosa belongs to the same family as lemongrass and is a pale yellow color with a sweet floral aroma.
Make use of this oil to kill bacteria, lower fever and brighten mood.
Peppermint (Mentha piperita)
Mint is a very common herb and both the herb and the essential oil obtained from its leaves have a very long tradition of use in folk and traditional medicine. The oils has, as you would expect, a very fresh minty aroma, and is a pale yellow color.
Use peppermint essential oil to obtain pain relief, kill bacteria, reduce fever, ease coughing and sore throats and to relieve nausea.
As a stimulating oil, peppermint should be avoided in the hours before bedtime.
This oil can be safely used with children but it’s advisable to keep it away from their necks and faces. It’s best applied as a vapor rub on the chest and back.
Spearmint (Mentha spicata)
Spearmint is very similar to peppermint,, but it has a less overpowering aroma and a slightly different therapeutic profile.
While peppermint provides general pain relief, especially from headaches and aching joints and muscles, spearmint has a more concentrated effect and when applied (diluted) to a specific area it can produce a local anesthetic effect. When you have the flu it would be a good pain reliever for a headache, but less useful for all over body aches.
Spearmint is less stimulating than peppermint and is helpful for relieving nausea, reducing fever and loosening mucus.
This oil can be used safely on children and can be used before bed.
Sweet Marjoram (Origanum majorana)
Marjoram is a member of the lamiaceae family, a family which includes more familiar plants like oregano, lavender, lemon balm, peppermint, basil and thyme.
This warm, spicy oil helps to relieve pain, kill bacteria, get rid of mucus and ensure restful sleep.
Not suitable for use during pregnancy.
Tea Tree (Melaleuca alternifolia)
Tea tree oil is a great all-rounder, and a good choice when you’re suffering from the flu. As well as being a potent antiviral, it kills bacteria, loosens mucus, calms inflammation in tissues, eases a cough, and stimulates the immune system to help you fight off the bug.
Tea tree oil does have a slightly medicinal aroma, but it isn’t unpleasant and it blends well with other oils.
Thyme (Thymus vulgaris)
Thyme is one of the big guns when it comes to antiviral essential oils, but it does have some drawbacks which you should be aware of before you decide to use it.
Steam distilled from the leaves and flowers of the thyme plant, thyme essential oil has a fresh, slightly medicinal aroma and is a pale yellow to amber color.
Thyme oil kills bacteria, suppresses a cough, thins mucus, boosts the immune system and eases aches and pains.
Caution is advised because this variety of thyme essential oil can cause irritation to mucous membranes and irritate skin. It may also interfere with blood clotting, so is not suitable for those taking blood thinners. This oil is also best avoided during pregnancy.
The maximum safe dilution for this essential oil is 1.3% – 8 drops per ounce of carrier oil.
Thyme c.t. Linalool (Thymus zygis, c.t linalool)
This type of thyme essential oil has a similar (though less potent) therapeutic profile to thymus vulgaris but it’s non irritating and doesn’t carry the same safety concerns. The main constituent in this chemotype is linalool, whereas thymus vulgaris has thymol as its principal constituent and it’s the thymol that presents the safety issues.
Diluting Essential Oils
Unless otherwise noted above, a safe and effective essential oil dilution for otherwise healthy adults is a 2% dilution, and for children and the elderly a 1% dilution is typically used.
To make a 2% dilution, take one ounce (30 ml) of carrier oil and add 12 drops of essential oil. A 1% dilution uses half the amount of essential oil – 6 drops per ounce of carrier oil.
You can use any vegetable based oil, olive oil, sunflower, coconut, jojoba, almond, etc as your carrier oil.
Essential oils need to be diluted in carrier oils, or creams and lotion containing oil because they are lipophilic and don’t disperse in water.
If you want to add essential oils to your bath or a foot soak, you can dilute the oils in a tablespoon of vodka (which acts as a solvent) before adding the mix to the water.
Using Antiviral Essential Oils
The antiviral essential oils will have the strongest virus killing effect when you apply them topically, allowing the antiviral constituents to absorb through your skin and from there into your bloodstream, where they will swiftly make their way around your body and seek out virus particles to destroy.
Diffusing essential oils is also helpful to kill off viruses in the air, while inhaling decongestant and expectorant oils in a steam will help to deal with the respiratory symptoms caused by the flu.
As the old saying goes, “an ounce of prevention is better than a pound of cure,” so when flu season is on the horizon, make sure that you diffuse oils to clean the air, add essential oils to your alcohol based hand sanitizer, and use some of the gentler antivirals in your daily moisturizing body lotion.