Eucalyptus & Respiratory Health

Colder temperatures mean better living conditions for viruses, and research shows that most adults get an average of 2-3 respiratory illnesses, per year. But what is a respiratory illness, and how do you know when to see a doctor? Understanding some basic facts about common types of infections, their symptoms, and standard treatments can help you create a plan of attack the next time a runny nose decides to run amok in your home. We’ll show you what to look for, when to turn to outside help, and how to manage your symptoms through natural remedies and ingredients like eucalyptus. 

What is the Respiratory System?

All cells in the human body need an ongoing exchange of oxygen and carbon dioxide to function properly. While the lungs are ultimately responsible for extracting oxygen out of the air we breathe (and exhaling carbon dioxide), the respiratory system is composed of all the body parts that work together to make this exchange possible. This includes the nose and mouth, the sinuses, the throat and airways, in addition to the lungs. The respiratory system is also responsible for humidifying air that enters the body, bringing it to the correct temperature, protecting the lungs from harmful irritants, and the ability to talk and smell. Because they are the first organs exposed to the outside world, they are especially sensitive to germs and other compounds in the air, which can cause infections and inflammation.

Recognizing the different body parts and understanding where infections commonly sit is helpful for developing treatment plans and understanding when it’s a good idea to call a doctor. Here are the main organs in the respiratory system, and common illnesses that affect them:

  • Nose and Sinuses: The sinuses are a group of cavities that sit near the nose in the forehead and cheeks. Together the nose and sinuses are responsible for filtering out harmful particles, humidifying air that enters the lungs, and producing mucus. Infections in these cavities are known as sinusitis, also known as a common head cold.    
  • Throat: The throat (or pharynx and larynx) is the passageway that connects the nasal cavities to the airways that lead to the lungs. It contains the tonsils and adenoids (both part of the lymph system), as well as the vocal cords. Infections in this structure, including strep throat, are called pharyngitis.
  • Bronchial Tubes: These are the tubes that connect the throat and trachea to the lungs. The airway “splits” and the bronchial tubes carry air in and out of both the left and right lungs. Infections here (known as bronchitis) produce a deep and long-lasting cough, and are commonly referred to as chest colds
  • Lungs: filled with tiny sacs known as alveoli, the lungs are the final destination for the air we breathe, and are ultimately responsible for the exchange of gases in our bloodstream. Infections in the lung, aka pneumonia, are much less common than the other parts of the respiratory system, but can pose a serious threat when they happen. They are often accompanied by a fever, and should be treated by a medical professional, sooner, rather than later. 

Nature’s Remedy: Eucalyptus

The vast majority of colds are caused by viruses that resolve themselves within 7-10 days, and all that extra mucus is how the body “sheds” the viral load. The same goes for proteins that cause allergies, or any other harmful substance causing irritation in the respiratory system. But, just because colds are likely to go away on their own, doesn’t mean there aren’t options to stay more comfortable, in the meantime. While you wait for your body to fight viral infection, symptoms like a stuffy nose, sore throat, and headaches can all make life miserable. Luckily, eucalyptus essential oil, which is commonly found in many over-the-counter remedies, is an effective way to reduce the worst symptoms. 

Hailing from an evergreen tree native to Australia, eucalyptus essential oil is steam-distilled from the leaves of this plant that is now grown worldwide. Used medicinally for centuries, the native Aborigines used this plant to make a tea that was known to remedy fevers. Western colonizers began to prescribe eucalyptus to treat chest problems as early as 1788, and it has been primarily used to treat all sorts of respiratory conditions since the late 19th century. The clean, sharp, and slightly medicinal smell of over-the-counter vapor rubs is likely from eucalyptus. 

The secret to this plant’s alleviative properties? Two compounds known as 1,8-cineole, or cineole and eucalyptol. Cineole has been shown to reduce recovery times for sinusitis and bronchitis, while eucalyptol has strong antioxidant, antibacterial, antiviral, and antifungal properties. Together they are believed to promote sweating, clear mucus, and reduce the muscle spasms that narrow airways. 

The fastest and most effective way to take advantage of these therapeutic benefits is to inhale the vapors of eucalyptus oil. This can be done via diffuser, by placing a few drops in boiling water and inhaling deeply, or by creating a DIY chest rub. 

DIY Chest Rub for Congestion

Skip the questionable ingredients and negative side effects of over-the-counter chest rubs, and take advantage of the beneficial compounds found in essential oils. Eucalyptus is the star of the show here, but the menthol contained in peppermint can relieve pain, while rosemary is another good source of the compound cineole. As with any DIY recipe, feel free to adjust ingredients as supplies or personal preference require:

Supplies

  • Cooking pot
  • Mason jar
  • Eyedropper
  • Metal spoon
  • Round tin(s) or jar(s) to store balm. 

Ingredients

Instructions*

  • Place carrier oil and shea butter into a mason jar.
  • Place the mason jar into the cooking pot, and fill the pot with water so that the water line comes about halfway up the mason jar.
  • Bring the water to a boil and allow the mixture to heat slowly. Water should not be so high that it gets into the mason jar.
  • Stir mixture as needed, and do not let it come to a boil.
  • Once the mixture has reduced to a liquid, remove from heat.
  • As quickly as you can, add essential oils to the mixture and stir. Option to put the lid on the jar and shake vigorously to mix the ingredients quickly.
  • Once mixed, pour the rub into round tins and cover.
  • Allow the rub to sit overnight and solidify.

*Skip these steps if omitting shea butter and simply combine all oils.

Application

Use a dime-sized amount and rub onto the chest as needed and reapply as needed. If stored in a cool dry place, the mixture will keep for up to six months.

Maintaining Good Respiratory Health

While the DIY options above will provide relief in the event of a cold or infection, the very best treatment is prevention. The respiratory system is a critical part of overall health and well-being, and taking proper care of it will reduce the likelihood and duration of illnesses. To keep the sinuses, airways, and lungs happy and healthy, here are some best practices:

  • Rinse the nasal cavity regularly with a neti pot and saline solution. This is not only good for draining mucus while fighting an infection, when done regularly it can reduce inflammation in the sinus and lower histamine levels for those prone to allergies. 
  • Avoid exposure to the flu and other viral infections. Prevent illness by washing hands often and getting a flu vaccine every year.
  • Wear a mask if you are exposed to fumes, allergens, or germs for any reason.
  • Quit smoking and avoid secondhand smoke. This goes without saying, but it bears repeating: smoking is detrimental to respiratory health, and secondhand smoke can be just as dangerous.
  • Exercise regularly, eat a healthy diet, and drink plenty of water. What is good for overall health is also good for respiratory health. 

When to Call a Doctor

The good news is that the body is well adapted to filtering out irritants, and every time you have a stuffy nose or cough, it’s an indicator that the respiratory system is doing its job. With that said, any infection that lasts longer than 10 days or is accompanied by a fever should be treated by a medical professional, as these are signs of a bacterial infection. The medical community currently recommends essential oils as a complementary alternative to prescribed treatments, particularly antibiotics. When in doubt, always consult your doctor. 

The information in this article is based on current understandings of the common cold and respiratory infections like pharyngitis, bronchitis, and pneumonia. Research on COVID-19 is continuing to evolve rapidly and has not been included in the literature referenced here. For the latest information, symptoms, and treatment recommendation for COVID-19, please visit the CDC website.

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