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Time is of the Essence. Can Aromatherapy Ward off Swine Flu?

June 19, 2009

As we sit here freezing in our  Blue Mountains office we can’t help but wonder if the backache that has been plaguing us today is due to something more sinister than bad posture. Will we join the growing masses of people falling victim of Swine Flu? Is the spread of this new virus a foregone conclusion or can we fight back?  Being the kind of those people that touch, talk to and interact with the masses every day in order to make a dollar or two, becoming a hermit is not an option. So, what, if anything can be done? Let us look…

Why the fuss?

Is it me or does it seem like influenza leaps into our lives as soon as the month of June begins?  Winter is open season for true flu (we can get flu-like illnesses at any time of the year). A key factor in the spread of influenza is that in winter we snuggle up together more, we turn on heating systems and tend to stay indoors. There is much debate on whether people’s ability to ward off disease diminishes in winter – it has not been possible to find any medical evidence that this happens but the very fact that the most virulent and hard-hitting viruses come out to play in the winter can leave our immune systems overwhelmed.  So when flu opens the door, other viruses / bacterial infections and fungus  can take advantage!

Swine flu is a different beast to our usual range of winter influenza viruses, which is why it is such a worry. The swine flu was renamed H1N1 to more accurately describe its chemical make-up (the H and N relate to the viruses protein structure) and actually, there is currently no evidence that this strain of flu even came from pigs.   Being a new strain, people have no natural immunity to it and a vaccine against it has only just been announced (Friday 12th June) leaving us ill-prepared!  This, plus the fact that these days people hop on and off planes frequently is leading to a global pandemic.

The H1N1 virus is tiny; it consists of one strand of genetic material bound up in a protein shell. That shell is then further protected by an outer coating or envelope, which can change like a chemical chameleon to protect the virus from outside attack.   The virus works by getting inside our bodies (usually when we cough or put contaminated skin into our mouths), setting up home and then taking on a bit of our genetic make up to create something a little different – the evolution of a virus happens relatively quickly; another reason why they are difficult to deal with!

So should we be worried?

At time of writing,  12th June  the World Health Organization published the following statistics: 74 countries reported 29669 cases including 145 deaths (you can stay updated at

Cases in Australia are rising quickly with some public events being cancelled or postponed in attempts to contain the spread of the virus.    While most people will make a full recovery from the virus, those with compromised immune systems, the very young and the elderly are most at risk of complications following infection.

For those of us working in the health and wellness space, our health is essential to the smooth running of our salons and private practices. So, what can be done to protect ourselves, to prevent the spread of viruses in our premises and to improve our and our client’s resilience? They do say that prevention is better than cure and we shall see why!

Prevention – Better than Cure.

To The Pharmacy We Go.

Prevention really is the best approach when it comes to a viral infection, as viruses are hard to cure.  The worldwide fuss over drugs such as “Tamiflu” would have you thinking that everything is rosy – get flu, reach for Tamiflu and she’ll be right. Wrong. Tamiflu, Relenza and Peramivir  are  anti-viral drugs belonging to the Neuraminidase family. They  work by preventing the virus from budding (reproducing) which while quite effective doesn’t stop the virus completely. The best that most of us can hope for is a lessening of the symptoms – great!

Next we come to Vaccination.  Again, the  flu vaccines available at the doctors today can’t completely protect us due to this family of viruses being great at outsmarting the pursuer.  With work on a new flu vaccine only just complete most of us will have to go it alone for this round.

The Aromatherapy Cure

Many oils make anti-viral and anti-bacterial claims, claims that have been tried, trusted and passed down through generations of apothecary’s.    Today’s therapist knows that essential oils work on a number of levels of healing, fortifying and relaxing the mind and body. We looked through our essential oil medical chest to see which oils offer you the best chance of beating this flu season.

Eucalyptus Oil (Eucalyptus Globulus)

Key Components: 1,8-Cineol, Limonene Oxide.

Hard Evidence:

Effect of Eucalyptus Essential Oil on Respiratory Bacteria and Viruses.  Journal of Current Microbiology, Published: Springer, New York. ISSN: 0343-8651 (print). ISSUE: Vol 56, Number 1, Jan 08. Pages 89-92.

This paper shows Eucalyptus oil to be good at reducing numbers of the cold causing bacteria tested, it was also effective at killing one of the viruses tested. However, it had no effect on the mumps virus, a virus that has a similar outer structure to the H1N1 flu.  The study doesn’t prove that Eucalyptus essential oil is ineffective against H1N1 flu as it didn’t test it. However, we could conclude that it is unlikely to be effective based on its ineffectiveness against a similar virus. What the study did show is that Eucalyptus oil is great at killing off the bacteria that causes one type of pneumonia and meningitis. That has to be a good thing.

In the Therapists Chair:

Eucalyptus oil is a very well know oil for its camphor and wood-sweet undertone aroma and its disinfectant ability when it comes to cleaning your house. It gives that clean and clear smell.  The essential oil has many powerful properties to help combat the unwanted cold and flu’s of any kind.  Some of the properties are analgesic, antiseptic, antiviral, balsamic (helps with loosen phlegm and mucous) expectorant (helps with the mucous clearing in the respiratory system) and prophylactic (an agent which helps prevent disease or infection).  Theses properties combined can give a very powerful punch in the direction of unwanted illnesses.  It is one of natures ‘First Aid in a bottle’ amazing oils.

It has been used over the past decades as the oil for clearing the head of excess phlegm and I remember many a time with my head over a bowl filled with boiling water and eucalyptus oil, with a towel over my head breathing in this amazing oil.  It certainly cleared things up for me each time.  I believe I wouldn’t be the only one with this experience handed down through the generations.  When this oil is breathed in it not only helps with clearing the passage way it makes its way down to the bronchial tract and helps to clear away any nasties the may have entered there.  You are on the road to recovery with this powerful oil.  Now you can see why it is also used so widely in disinfectants for household cleaning. Eucalyptus is great at keeping any germs at bay.

Lemongrass Oil (Cymbopogon Citratus)

Key Components: Citral, Gerany Acetate, Linalyl Acetate, Geranial, Neral, Limonene.

Hard Evidence:

The  Inhibitory Effect of Essential Oils on Herpes Simplex Virus Type-1 Replication in vivo.  Journal of Microbiology and Immunology. Vol 47 (2003)  No 9 pp. 681-684.

This paper tested many essential oils to see if they could kill the common herpes simplex virus. Lemongrass was the stand out winner managing to kill all of the virus at very low concentrations.  Will this work against H1N1? Not sure as the herpes simplex virus is very different to this flu strain.  However, the one thing that they have in common is the presence of an envelope coating. The fact that the Lemongrass could penetrate this and kill the virus means that this is definitely worth a closer look.

In the Therapists Chair:

Here is another essential oil worthy of its position in the help to relieve colds and flu’s. It shares many properties with  eucalyptus  being analgesic, antiseptic and bactericidal. In addition,  it also has a very popular property in today society for helping our cells to better health through its work as an antioxidant. Finally it has carminative effect on the nervous system.  This oil helps with fever and headaches and when blended with some other essential oils it becomes even more potent at tackling influenza. Couple that with the ability of the oil to help you relax and this will give your immune system a boost. Allowing your body to to work to its full potential in fighting the illness.

Tea Tree Oil – Melaleuca Altenifolia

Key Components- Terpinen-4-ol, y-terpinene, Alpha terpinene. 1,8-Cineole

Hard Evidence:

Antiviral activity of Australian Tea Tree Oil and Eucalyptus Oil Against Herpes Simplex Virus in Cell Culture. Department of Virology, Hygiene Institute, University of Heidelburg, Germany. April 2001, 56 (4): 343-7

This study found both Tea Tree oil and Eucalyptus oil very effective at combating the Herpes Simplex virus at acceptable concentrations.  Again, we can’t then conclude that these oils would automatically be effective on the H1N1 virus but it would be worth a look!

In The Therapists Chair:

With its strong medicinal aroma, for which it is known tea tree as well as Eucalyptus are very popular essential oils in the treatment of flu like symptoms.  The properties found in tea tree are antiseptic, anti-inflammatory, antibiotic, antiviral and immunostimulant.  All properties are fantastic for helping combat any influenza.  This oil not only helps the immune system it also is there to help fight along side the systems.

Sandalwood – Santalum Album (Indian) or Santalum Spicatum (Australian)

Key Components – Beta- Santalol, alpha bisabolol, trans bergamatol, .

Hard Evidence:

Use of alpha and beta santalols major constituents of sandal wood oil, in the treatment of warts, skin blemishes and other viral induced tumors.   Inventors: Haque, Malika H (Columbus OH) and Haque Azeez U (Columbus OH). Application number 09/637290. Publication date: 06/18/2002

This patent application explains how the santalol’s contained within sandalwood oil can be used to prevent and treat tumors brought on by a virus such as human warts when applied topically. The virus that causes warts in humans is called the Human Papilloma Virus (HPV) and there are over 200 different strains out there.  This family of viruses is again very different to the H1N1 type, it does not have an outer envelope and contains two DNA strands making it very stable and slow growing!  Again, we can see that Sandalwood is anti-viral in as much as it can kill the HPV virus but as for H1N1?  That would need investigating…..

In The Therapists Chair:

Sandalwood essential oil with its sweet, balsamic aroma is amazing in helping the respiratory and the lymph systems with its anti-inflammatory and bactericidal properties. This can help in reducing any inflammation housed in the lymph nodes around the neck area adjacent to the respiratory system and protecting the area from bacteria. It also has the properties of carminative and sedative which again can help with the nervous system to reduce tension and stress which can be put on the body by the illness.

Lavender- Lavendula Angustifolia

Key Components: Alpha Terpineol, Linalool, Terpinen-4-ol, Linalyl

Acetate, Lavandulyl Acetate, Beta-Caryophyllene.

Hard Evidence:

The antimicrobial activity of high-necrodane and other lavender oils on methicillin-sensitive and -resistant Staphylococcus aureus (MSSA and MRSA).  Journal of Alternative Complimentary Medicine. Rollers S, Ernest N, Buckle J.

The paper shows that all of the above strains of lavender have antimicrobial properties. The test organism Staphylococcus Aureus’ (methicillin- sensitive and Methicillin- resistant) growth was inhibited when it came into direct contact with the lavender oil. Results were even better for a blend of oils showing that the more complex the blend, the better the result!   And H1N1? Well, Staph A is a bacterium not a virus so this paper doesn’t help us on the swine flu front but it does prove that the oil has potential on the microbial killing field and is worth another look.

In The Therapists Chair

Lavender is a wonderful all rounder of an essential oil.  It has the amazing ability to be gentle enough for children and the elderly and at the same time be very powerful oil in combating colds & flu’s.  Some of the properties in lavender are antimicrobial, antiseptic, antitoxic, carminative and sedative.  The carminative and sedative are here again and therefore even more help for your nervous system and reduce any form of stress within you while the other properties can get to work helping the immune and lymphatic systems.

By now you can imagine how powerful essential oils can be on their own and when blended with a few more you have yourself an amazing little package of healing abilities ready to help fight any influenza around.

While these may be the anti-viral hero’s, there are many more oils worth exploring. Most Citrus oils, Peppermint, Thyme, Garlic, Onion, Clove, and Cinnamon they have all been cited as potential anti-viral (although these oils are not always the safest to use) and much has been written to support these claims.

As we have seen from the cases above,  essential oils can slow down or even stop some viruses in their tracks BUT viruses are tricky little critters and just because an oil kills one, it doesn’t mean it will kill the all.   In addition, looking at the above studies shows that essential oils often work well because of their complex make-up rather than due to any one particular chemical constituent. Therefore trying to determine which oils are good virus killers based on just one chemical feature is a good first step but may just be a little simplistic.  Finally, the dose required for a good kill rate and the contact time on the skin are also important factors in determining an essential oil’s anti-viral success rate adding to the confusion.

So, will essential oils keep the swine flu at bay? Well, from a purely scientific standpoint there have been no studies published that show an essential oil killing the H1N1 virus – something that is not surprising based on it only having been around for a short time.  However, many papers demonstrate the effectiveness of essential oils at killing a variety of viruses. That, pared with centuries of literature from the annuls of traditional medicine give us hope and what have we to lose by trying?

Before we conclude, any therapist will know that Essential oils are not just beneficial on a physical level; they are also good for the soul! Indeed, with the mind controlling the body, a bit of relaxation and positive thinking may be just what we need to get us through the bitter, virus laden winter months. On that note, we will leave you with some tips on preparing the mind to face winter head on.

Embracing Winter – Empowering Health.

I am such a strong believer of looking after your Immune System and it will so look after you.  Especially in the winter months. If we start to really look after our immune system a few months prior to them this is helping the prevention of any influenza entering your body. Our immune system is the defense force within us working along side our lymphatic system to keep all foreign things in our bodies at bay.  As Chrissie Wildwood states in The Encyclopedia of Aromatherapy, ‘The immune system is the body’s defense system, its fortress against an astounding variety of things that have the potential to make us ill. These include viruses, fungi, dust, pollen, harmful chemicals and just about anything that could be harmful to our body.’  The two systems work in tandem to ensure your body is kept at its optimum peak of performance.  The immune system helps to fight against any nasties that have entered our body whilst our lymphatic system expels the toxins to help keep us well.

If our immune system is slowing down or not at is best that’s when viral or bacterial infections creep in to our bodies and try to take over. At this point it takes time for our immune system to kick in and begin to fight.  Actually our immune system is not fully developed as a child and begins to weaken as we get older.  This is why these categories of people are very susceptible to all strains of flu’s.

The beauty of Aromatherapy is that it is so beneficial to our immune, lymphatic and respiratory systems and can play a large part in helping them to fight off all forms of colds & influenza’s.  With all of the essential properties required for fighting flu like symptoms: antiseptic, antiviral, immunostimulant, antimicrobial, anti-inflammatory and carminative, essential oils make for a powerful anti-flu weapon!

When essential oils are used in a vaporizer especially, eucalyptus, peppermint, lemon or lime they can help your respiratory system by clearing your bronchial tract and sinus passage, and that’s just from breathing the oils in!!  The vaporizer also helps cleanse the air and helps eliminate any bacteria or air borne viral activity that may be present within your home or space.

Application on the skin through massage whether it is Aromatherapy or Lymphatic Drainage can aid in stimulating the lymph and immune systems and in turn help the white blood cells to fight the virus.  Some essential oils used with massage to help in this way are tea tree, lavender, lemongrass, sandalwood, sweet orange, roman chamomile, ginger and black pepper.  I must note that massage is only recommended at the onset of a cold or flu and on the tail end of the illness as  during the severity of the illness massage is just too much for the three systems to handle.  This is when the vaporizer, bathing  and light pressure moisturising of the body with a blend of oils are the most helpful.

Baths are also very useful in getting rid of toxins during and after the flu.  By adding Epsom salts (great toxin and stress releaser) with essential oils this can help your body to relax and allow your systems to keep fighting. As you relax,  the essential oils work to eliminate toxins out of your body.  Essential oils to help in the bath are lavender, sweet orange, sandalwood and roman chamomile.  Also as an added touch to your healing try applying  an appropriate aromatherapy blend and using a carrier oil like macadamia (an oil which is closest to our sebum in our skin) and moisturise onto your body and hop into bed for complete rest.  Bliss!

All the above ways of using aromatherapy can help with influenza and possibly the Swine flu. Remember to keep hydrated with water and nourishing soups and keep taking the vitamins and minerals to help your immune system internally.  Team that with the information your doctor gives you  and plenty of rest  and you will be on your way to empowering your health.

Rug Up and Keep Warm!!

Written by the Realize Beauty Team.

Amanda Foxon-Hill  – Cosmetic Chemist.

Sharon Mitchell – Aromatherapist, Massage Therapist

4 Comments leave one →
  1. July 7, 2009 5:49 am

    Great post!

  2. Carolyn permalink
    July 18, 2009 5:51 pm

    Have just sped read this article. Very impressed informative & precise.

    Just what I needed before I go & open up our independent Aromatherapy shop in Bradford. West Yorkshire. 18.7.09


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