We all can get congested at times and for many different reasons. Over-the-counter meds and prescriptions can help greatly. But some of these can be difficult to access, get a prescription for, or may come with less than desirable side effects such as dependence, immune suppression, and more.
Are there any natural alternatives that could work just as effectively? Could they work for both common congestion issues and congestion related to more serious issues or conditions?
In a pinch, essential oils for congestion are shown to be just as effective for the congestion symptoms that mainstream drugs and pharmaceuticals can help with, too. Plus, essential oils are much easier for the average person to get access to. And when they’re used safely and correctly, they’re completely natural alternatives with fewer side effects or complications.
What are the causes of congestion?
Congestion can be caused by many things. Since congestion is only a symptom—a term for the narrowing of the nasal passages or sinus cavities due to inflammation—it can have many causes, from normal everyday triggers to dealing with a diagnosed condition, disorder, or illness.
The most common causes of congestion include:
- Colds, flu, or viruses
- Smoke or pollutants
- Allergies or asthma
- Migraines or headaches
- Respiratory infections
- Nasal polyps
Symptoms and common treatments for congestion
Are you feeling congested? Some signs that you could be dealing with congestion, no matter the cause, include:
- Difficulty breathing nasally
- Having to breathe through the mouth
- Sinus pressure
- Dry blocked nasal passages
- Gunky and runny sinus or nasal passages
- Frequent sneezing
- Lack of sense of smell
If the congestion is caused by a virus or infection, you may also deal with fever, chills, or body aches. Some common over-the-counter medications or treatments for congestion may be:
- Cough syrups
- Chest vapor rubs
- Nasal sprays
- Hot steams or showers
- Neti pots
- NSAID pain relievers
If you go to a doctor or pharmacy for congestion issues, chances are that one of the above treatments will be recommended or prescribed. While some of these have little to no harmful side effects, others that are often recommended for the worst congestion issues can have unwanted impacts on health, such as affecting the immune system (lowering immunity), drowsiness, or even creating a dependence or tolerance to the medication. This means you will need to use more over time to have the same effects or relief for your congestion.
What are the best essential oils for congestion?
Natural remedies for congestion do exist, including essential oils for congestion. Doctors and pharmacies are likely to recommend some of these to be just as effective as medications, sprays, or pharmaceuticals and as steroid-free alternatives that won’t suppress immunity or create dependence, tolerance, or other side effects.
The essential oils below can be used to enhance some of the simpler and more natural approaches for helping with congestion—especially humidifiers, vapor rubs, steams, or aromatic diffusers. Each of these can utilize oils that are known to help with congestion issues, creating completely natural and very effective relief.
Cayenne (hot pepper)
In very small amounts (so as not to cause pain or discomfort), the spicy compound found in cayenne pepper and its oils (called capsaicin) can have a powerful airway-opening effect that helps relieve congestion. Studies show that in a double-blind setting, capsaicin helped 40% of test subjects with their rhinitis and congestion symptoms when applied inside the nostrils. Based on this research, cayenne could offer similar relief when inhaled very diluted in a diffuser.1
When using cayenne pepper for diffusion or aromatherapy, use only 1 drop per cup of water instead of 2-3 as with other essential oils. Move up to 2 or 3 if effects of therapy are not felt or effective.
The volatile oils from this famous tea flower are well-known for helping with inflammation, allergies, and itchy skin. For people dealing with allergy-related congestion and in need of a skin- or body-gentle natural decongestive, chamomile could be the perfect solution for the most sensitive of people. In one study, chamomile was shown to help with the symptoms of chronic rhinosinusitis, an allergy-related issue that can often involve congestion and other symptoms.2
Hailing from Australia, the oils from this tree are widely used for respiratory and breathing issues, including congestion. Eucalyptus is often called a “bronchodilator,” meaning it helps open up airways to naturally ease breathing in the lungs, nose, and sinuses. One study showed that using eucalyptus in nasal lavage (neti pot) helped greatly with congestion issues in test subjects who were dealing with the common cold, along with the typical saline solution.3
People might relate congestion only with problems like allergies, colds, flu, or asthma. But congestion can also be an issue with headache disorders, like migraines, and can add to the pain and discomfort of these episodes. Feverfew, the premier herb and essential oil for migraine relief and prevention, may be a great natural part of your home remedy arsenal against congestion related to headaches and migraines specifically. According to research, feverfew may help with this by having powerful effects as an anti-inflammatory antihistamine and mast cell protector, which benefits all types of congestion.4
This culinary rhizome from Asia is a classic for helping with colds and flu, not only as an antiviral but for the respiratory symptoms of these sicknesses as well: inflammation, coughs, and congestion. One study showed that ginger greatly helped sufferers of acute rhinitis, an issue that can happen due to coughs or colds.5 It could also help with allergies that lead to painful or uncomfortable congestion.
The menthol compound found in many species of mint, including spearmint or peppermint, is used all around the world and in many products for its ability to soothe inflammation and pain, and to open up airways. It’s no surprise then that mint’s vapors could help with congestion as well. After all, mint is famous for it and found in many respiratory health supporting products! One study showed that peppermint essential oil (among many other oils) was very effective at opening and relieving the sinuses of congestion issues.6
The essential oil of this plant is a go-to for many people when it comes to dealing with colds, flus, and viruses. As it turns out, one of oregano’s active compounds, thymol, is very helpful at opening airways and easing breathing as a bronchodilator, much like eucalyptus. When put to the test, oregano was very effective for relieving congestion in people with chronic rhinosinusitis, even comparable to an over-the-counter nasal spray for the same issues.7
Besides being a tasty Mediterranean cuisine spice, parsley has been used for centuries to help with allergies, inflammation, and hay fever. No doubt this means it could have benefits for congestion of the nose and sinuses in general. Studies show that parsley is indeed very highly anti-inflammatory as a food, essential oil, and herbal supplement for many purposes. It’s also very safe and easy to find and use as an essential oil for congestion.8
Not unlike its not-too-distant Australian relative, eucalyptus, tea tree is used in herbalism and natural medicines as a powerful respiratory remedy. Used topically or inhaled in diffuser or as vapors, tea tree opens airways and may clear congestion as a bronchodilator. One study found that both tea tree and eucalyptus together were shown to help speed the recovery, symptoms, and relief of the common cold in young kids, including congestion issues.9
A close relative to both mints and oregano, thyme too contains compounds (menthol and thymol, the latter of which it gives its name) that help dilate the blood vessels and passages of the lungs, nose, and sinuses for easier breathing. In fact, thymol from thyme is a highly popular ingredient in many mainstream decongestant medicines. As an essential oil on its very own, thyme could be just as powerful. In one study, thyme was shown to be effective at alleviating allergic rhinitis symptoms.10
How to use essential oils for congestion
Follow product directions for using these oils found with your diffuser or humidifier and be careful to use only specified amounts. Also follow essential oil label directions for further use, safety guidance, and proper amounts. Only use essential oils with a humidifier if directions say it is possible to do so.
Use a diffuser within the enclosed space you plan to use to experience relief. For a quick steam without a diffuser or humidifier, place 2-3 drops (1 drop with cayenne) per cup of water of any of the above essential oils into a pot and bring to the lowest simmer possible (not a boil) only so it releases steam to be gently inhaled. Hover over the pot and inhale the vapors until you find relief. (If cayenne essential oils create discomfort with eyes, place a clean rag or towel over eyes for protection.)
Essential oils can also be applied inside the nostrils with a cotton swab diluted in a carrier oil or lotion for relief. Dilute 2-3 drops per teaspoon and apply (only 1 drop for cayenne).
What are the best EO blends for congestion?
Essential oils are even more effective together than when used alone, having a synergistic effect. To get the most mileage out of essential oils for congestion, try some of these blends for any type of congestion issue. Some of these could be more effective than other blends for specific types of congestion issues, depending on their causes.
Cold and flu congestion blend – Ginger, mint, oregano, & thyme
Each of these herbs is reputed for some virus-fighting and immune-boosting benefit. Such benefit could also holistically help with the issues behind one’s nasal or sinus congestion—especially if they are dealing with cold, flu, or another congestion-causing virus—while also helping to clear up breathing. Ultimately, this blend can help congestion of any type, though, and it will work especially well mixed and diluted into a lotion or carrier oil that can be applied near the congestion site or on the chest (much like a vapor rub) for improved breathing throughout the day.
Allergy congestion blend – Chamomile & parsley
These two herbs and their essential oils have a stronger affinity for allergy inflammation and issues compared to the other essential oils listed in this article. As such, this paired blend may be the best choice for congestion caused by allergies such as rhinitis, hay fever, pollen, pet dander, etc. Both herbs are noted to have anti-histamine and mast cell effects involved with allergic reactions. For a little extra “oomph” to the blend, add some drops of feverfew. This blend could also be most helpful for excessively damp sinus or nasal congestion with runny nose.
Migraine or headache congestion blend – Cayenne & feverfew
Congestion can also be related to headache or migraine and is a symptom of migraine in some people. Whether you are trying to prevent a migraine or dealing with migraine symptoms, cayenne and feverfew together could offer some powerful prevention and relief, depending on how you use it. (Be sparing with use of cayenne or any hot pepper essential oil and dilute heavily as well to avoid unwanted pain or discomfort!)
Respiratory issues congestion blend – Eucalyptus & tea tree
For difficult congestion or respiratory issues of any kind, this combination is bound to help: whether for dry or damp sinuses, or those caused by colds, flu, allergies, or asthma. These two Aussie essential oils have some of the strongest effects for opening up airways. This pair will also blend well with mint and thyme essential oils for some extra benefits.
Relieve congestion with essential oils
Congestion can be one of the most inconvenient and uncomfortable symptoms when dealing with any type of respiratory issue: interfering with work, sleep, concentration, or other aspects of daily life. Instead of depending on steroid-heavy meds that may cause drowsiness, essential oils for congestion can provide equally wonderful relief, both easily and affordably, and without those side effects when used properly.
About Adrian White
Adrian White is a certified herbalist, organic farmer, and health, food, and agriculture freelance writer—and upcoming author. She is a past contributor to Healthline with bylines in The Guardian, Civil Eats, and Good Housekeeping. Adrian is also the co-owner and operator of Jupiter Ridge LLC, an organic farm growing diverse vegetables, mushrooms and herbs.
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