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Aromatherapy (Essential Oils Therapy)

Topic Overview

What is aromatherapy?

Aromatherapy, or essential oils therapy, is using a plant's aroma-producing oils (essential oils) to treat disease. Essential oils are taken from a plant's flowers, leaves, stalks, bark, rind, or roots. The oils are mixed with another substance (such as oil, alcohol, or lotion) and then put on the skin, sprayed in the air, or inhaled. You can also massage the oils into the skin or pour them into bath water. Aromatherapy as used today originated in Europe and has been practiced there since the early 1900s.

Practitioners of aromatherapy believe that fragrances in the oils stimulate nerves in the nose. Those nerves send impulses to the part of the brain that controls memory and emotion. Depending on the type of oil, the result on the body may be calming or stimulating.

The oils are thought to interact with the body's hormones and enzymes to cause changes in blood pressure, pulse, and other body functions. Another theory suggests that the fragrance of certain oils may stimulate the body to produce pain-fighting substances.

What is aromatherapy used for?

Aromatherapy may promote relaxation and help relieve stress. It has also been used to help treat a wide range of physical and mental conditions, including burns, infections, depression, insomnia, and high blood pressure. But so far there is limited scientific evidence to support claims that aromatherapy effectively prevents or cures illness.

Is aromatherapy safe?

Practitioners of aromatherapy are not specially licensed in the United States. A wide range of licensed health professionals (such as massage therapists, nurses, and counselors) may have experience and training in aromatherapy. It is important to talk with your medical doctor to see whether aromatherapy may be helpful and safe for your specific health condition.

Do not swallow the oils used in aromatherapy. Many of the oils are potent and can be dangerous if taken internally (swallowed).

Children younger than age 5 should not use aromatherapy, because they can be very sensitive to the oil. Nor should anyone use oils near the eyes or mouth, because irritation of the skin and membranes may occur.

People with certain chronic illnesses or conditions should not use aromatherapy without first consulting a doctor. These illnesses and conditions include:

  • Lung conditions such as asthma, respiratory allergies, or chronic lung disease. Oils may cause airway spasms.
  • Skin allergies. Some oils may cause skin irritation, especially in the membranes of the eyes, nose, and mouth.
  • Pregnancy. Pregnant women should not use aromatherapy. Some oils (such as juniper, rosemary, and sage) may cause uterine contractions.

Always tell your doctor if you are using an alternative therapy or if you are thinking about combining an alternative therapy with your conventional medical treatment. It may not be safe to forgo your conventional medical treatment and rely only on an alternative therapy.

References

Other Works Consulted

  • Harris R (2011). Aromatherapy. In M Micozzi, ed., Fundamentals of Complementary and Alternative Medicine, 4th ed., pp. 332–342. St. Louis: Saunders.
  • Buckel J (2009). Aromatherapy. In L Freeman, ed., Mosby’s Complementary and Alternative Medicine: A Research-Based Approach, 3rd ed., pp. 389–407. St. Louis: Mosby Elsevier.

Credits

By Healthwise Staff
Adam Husney, MD - Family Medicine
Kathleen Romito, MD - Family Medicine
Last Revised June 11, 2013

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