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The 6 Best Essential Oils For Congestion: Expert Advice on How & When to Use Each to Feel Better Fast

Inhaling the pleasant scents flushes mucus, tames inflammation and kills viruses + bad bacteria

There’s never a good time to be congested. Run-of-the-mill colds, seasonal allergies or simply dry indoor air can leave many of us sniffling and reaching for the box of tissues. The good news: There are a host of essential oils for congestion that can ease the pesky symptom naturally. Read on to learn more about the healing powers of essential oils for congestion, and how to create your own blend to maximize the benefits.

Understanding what causes congestion

Congestion occurs when the delicate tissues in your nose and sinuses become inflamed and swollen. A variety of factors can trigger congestion, including viral infections like the flu, allergies and pollutants like smoke. When these invaders enter your sinuses, the body responds by producing mucus. Mucus traps and eliminates bacteria, viruses and other particles that don’t belong in the nose. Plus, it helps keep your sinus moisturized when you’re breathing in dry air.

What’s more, these same allergens and bacteria can trigger inflammation that narrows your nasal passage. And when inflammation and increased mucus build up coincide, you’re left with a blocked-up nose that can trigger sniffling and make breathing difficult. Fortunately, the right essential oils help quell congestion so you can breathe easier. (For added relief, click through to learn how spicy honey can ease congestion, too.)

What are essential oils?

“Essential oils are extracts of plants, fruits, trees or flowers,” explains natural health expert Michelle Schoffro Cook PhD, creator of The Essential Oils Healing Deck. “The plants are usually steam distilled to separate the oil components from the remainder of the plant matter.” The process leaves behind aromatic oils that can be diffused into the air, massaged into skin or their scent inhaled from a bottle.

However, essential oils are not to be confused with fragrance oils or perfume oils, warns aromatherapy expert Pat Princi-Jones, author of A Scented Life. “Perfume and fragrance oils are made up of artificial substances and are, in fact, copies of the real deal,” she explains. “Although fragrance oils can smell great, they do not have any of the therapeutic values of an authentic essential oil.”

Related: These 7 Essential Oils Boost Brainpower by 226% — How to Get the Perks

How to use essential oils for congestion

While it’s true that you can use essential oils in many different ways, when it comes to easing congestion, Schoffro Cook says inhaling the oils provides the biggest benefit. You can do this using a diffuser by adding 3 to 5 drops of essential oil per 3 to 4 oz. of water. The mixture is then aerosolized and dispersed into the air. Princi-Jones notes that this method may also reduce the spread of airborne germs, especially when using an essential oil with antiviral properties (more on that later). She recommends diffusing for about 3 hours first thing in the morning in a central, open area of your home. (Click through for the best aromatherapy diffusers for essential oils.)

An aromatherapy diffuser for essential oils, which can ease congestion, beside candles

You can also simply hold the vial of essential oil a few inches below your nose and take a few slow, deep inhales as needed throughout the day. Bothered by mucus, too? Try stream inhalation, which can help expel mucus. To do: “Put your face over a pot of hot water (about a foot away) with a couple drops of essential oil and cover your head with a towel,” explains Schoffro Cook. Adding a few drops of essential oil to your shower and inhaling as it creates steam is also effective, Schoffro Cook notes. Just be careful to put the oil in a spot where you won’t risk slipping.

A woman with a towel over her head leaning over a pot of essential oils for congestion

Related: Sandalwood Essential Oil Activates Your Hair Follicles To Grow Longer, Thicker Hair

The best essential oils for congestion

Now that you know how to use them, you’re likely wondering exactly what essential oils for congestion are most effective. Consider one (or more) or these essential oils to get started.

1. Eucalyptus

“Eucalyptus is my go-to essential oil for easing congestion,” says Schoffro Cook. The scent helps you breathe easier since it clears sinuses, loosens mucus and opens airways. How? “The crisp aroma is jam-packed with the healing compound 1,8 cineole,” says Princi-Jones. Also called eucalyptol, The National Association for Holistic Aromatherapy says this active ingredient in eucalyptus oil is key for clearing airways of mucus, plus it acts as a natural cough suppressant. Eucalyptus may also bolster the immune system to produce more virus killing cells. In fact, research in Frontiers in Pharmacology found eucalyptus oil may notably reduce cold recovery time. (Click through for more eucalyptus oil benefits.)

Eucalyptus essential oil for congestion beside fresh eucalyptus on a green background

2. Peppermint

Peppermint oil’s cooling, anti-inflammatory menthol makes it a great essential oil for congestion. But that’s not he only compound of note. “There are over forty healing compounds in peppermint oil,” reveals Schoffro Cook. She adds that menthone and rosmarinic acid in peppermint essential oil also help with congestion. Rosmarinic acid is known to open airways, she explains. And menthone is antibacterial, meaning it can fight off invading bacteria, a common trigger of nasal congestion.

Peppermint essential oil, which is used for congestion, beside fresh peppermint

3. Lavender

Most people use lavender essential oil to tame stress or improve sleep. But according to a study out of Brazil, lavender oil may also ease inflammation that can make sinus congestion worse. Like other oils, lavender contains potent antimicrobial compounds that calms congestion by tamping down bacteria, notes Schoffro Cook. Plus, research in the American Journal of Rhinology & Allergy found that lavender sped up the rate mucus is cleared from nasal passages, known as the ciliary beat frequency.

Lavender essential oil on a wood base next to lavender sprigs

4. Lemon

Bright and fresh lemon essential oil can ease congestion thanks to its antibacterial and antioxidant abilities. Princi-Jones notes this can have a soothing effect on congested sinuses. Plus, research in Pathogens show citrusy oil is a powerful anti-inflammatory throughout the whole body. This may may aid in sinus drainage, so you can banish the sniffles quickly.

A fresh lemon beside lemon essential oil for congestion

5. Tea tree

Tea tree oil is ideal for easing congestion, since it addresses the underlying causes of inflammation and mucus build-up such as bacterial and viral infections, explains Schoffro Cook. It’s also an expectorant that reduces mucus and may alleviate inflammation to ease sinus swelling that may make congestion feel worse. And in a happy bonus, Schoffro Cook says tea tree essential oil can prevent viruses from entering cells, making it a beneficial preventative measure to use during cold and flu season.

Related: Dermatologists Reveal How Tea Tree Oil May Work Better to Heal Red, Itchy Skin on Face and Scalp Than Prescription Drugs

Tea tree oil on moss

6. Thyme

“The standout for me is thyme linalool,” says Princi-Jones, who notes that this herbal essential oil is able to strengthen respiratory function. In fact, research shows that the oil supports the upper respiratory tract to reduce symptoms like congestion and cough. Thyme essential oil also promotes relaxation and reduces stress. That can bolster your immune system to ward off new and worsening symptoms.

Tip: Princi-Jones recommends sticking to the linalool formulations of thyme essential oil. Why? Other forms (like thymol) contain compounds that may irritate skin and mucus membranes. One to try: Plant Therapy Essential Oils Thyme Linalool (Buy from Plant Therapy, $11.99).

Thyme essential oil beside the fresh herb on a wood tray

How to combine essential oils for congestion

Each of the essential oils above are great on their own. But to get even bigger benefits, you can try blending a few essential oils for congestion. Combining scents builds upon the existing benefits for added relief. For instance, you can use eucalyptus to open airways paired with lemon to encourage sinus drainage.

Princi-Jones recommends a blend of thyme, pine, lemon and eucalyptus oil to open up airways. She also notes that ginger, peppermint, eucalyptus and lemon work well together to ease symptoms. And if congestion is keeping you up at night, consider eucalyptus, cedarwood and lavender in the evenings, since lavender and cedarwood have sedative effects that can improve sleep. Princi-Jones typically suggests adding 2 drops of each oil you’re blending for the best results.

What to look for when buying essential oils for congestion

Ready to start using essential oils to ease congestion? You’ll want to make sure you’re choosing quality oils to get the study-backed benefits. But it can be difficult to distinguish high quality essential oils from fake or diluted essential oils, says Schoffro Cook. She recommends avoiding essential oils sold in discount stores, pharmacies and large online retailers, since it can be difficult to find the origin of these products. Princi-Jones adds that essential oils should always be sold in dark, glass bottles. This ensures they don’t deteriorate when exposed to sunlight.  

Additionally, Schoffro Cook suggests looking for third-party laboratory testing to ensure quality. She suggests trying the brand Pranarom. And Princi-Jones adds that reputable companies should also have education and information on their products online, as well as details like the botanical name, part of the plant and expiration date on the packaging itself.

For more on the healing powers of essential oils:

Essential Oils for Weight Loss: 6 Study-Proven Ways to Lose Belly Fat — No Diet Required!

Breathing In Orange Essential Oil Lowers Cortisol Levels 84% — and Counters Stress & Cravings

Study: Breathing in Rose Essential Oil Eases Pain & Ushers in Calm in 90 Seconds

This content is not a substitute for professional medical advice or diagnosis. Always consult your physician before pursuing any treatment plan.

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