Utilizing Eucalyptus Essential Oil as part of a child’s wellness plan remains a hotly debated topic on the Internet, social media and with professionals alike. I would like to go over some the research, look at what we do know, and help to clear up any possible confusion surrounding this respiratory powerhouse of an essential oil.
Eucalyptus Oil Basics
The eucalyptus tree is a part of the myrtaceae family and is mostly indigenous to Australia and Tasmania. There are over 700 varieties of this beautiful tree. They are the favorite food for the koala bear, but interestingly enough poisonous to most other animal species.
There are also a large variety of Eucalyptus Essential Oils, but we typically do not see more than a half dozen of them on the market. Eucalyptol, or 1,8 cineole, and isovaleric aldehyde are the two main components that I will be focusing on today. The component 1,8 cineole is a monoterpene cyclic ether; you may have seen it labeled an oxide. Of all the functional groups of essential oils, cyclic ethers have one of the strongest aromas as far as essential oil constituents go. It is a sort of “in your face” odorant.
According to E. Joy Bowles in her book The Chemistry of Aromatherapeutic Oils: “Mucous glands and cilia of the respiratory tract are thought to be stimulated by oxides, in particular linalool oxide and 1,8 cineole, which results in an expectorant effect” (1).
Although the constituent 1,8 cineole can have anti-inflammatory effects, studies show it can also cause respiratory irritation. What does the research tell us?
What The Research Shows
Various research papers have shown adequate reason to warn against very specific use of 1,8 cineole. The following information will help to set the stage to be able to clearly understand where the risk lies. Here are a few of the reported incidents:
“A 4-month-old boy had four days of upper respiratory tract symptoms affecting feeding, and a relative had given his mother, a 30 year old woman with three other children, some ‘Olbas Oil’ without the box or instructions. She did not notice the warning against use in infants and put several drops in his right nostril” (2). He immediately displayed very rapid breathing and an ambulance was summoned. The baby exhibited major side effects, but after he received professional care he recovered with no known lasting damage.
“An almost 2-month-old boy was referred to our intensive care unit about 30min after the mother instilled about 1ml of a menthol solution into the nose instead of NaCI 0.9%”(3). (NaCI is sodium chloride or saline) Four hours after admission, testing, and care, his pulse, blood pressure and respiration rate returned to normal.
*Instilled means introducing a substance directly into the nose.
A 6-year-old Caucasian girl presented with widespread pruritic urticaria (rash/hives). Her parent applied a mixture to her skin including a very large amount of eucalyptol initially over a small area of skin, but was then applied as soaked bandages under Gladwrap occlusion to the limbs and trunk (approximately 25ml). On the morning that she was admitted to the hospital, a new batch of solution was made, this time using 50mls eucalyptol. Bandages were applied. “Within 10-15 min of completing application of the bandages, the patient was noted by her father to appear “intoxicated”, with slurred speech and unsteady gate.” In transit to the doctor the patient lost consciousness. Upon arriving at the doctor’s office, bandages were immediately removed, and she was thoroughly washed. She was then brought to the hospital where she fully recovered (4). This was a case of extreme use where copious amounts of eucalyptus caused a depressed central nervous system (CNS), but an example of why there are limits to usage.
There are times when facts are misunderstood, are possibly taken out of context, or even times where being overly conservative comes as a result of learning information that may instill fear or uncertainty. And while it is true that we should all (myself included) work from a space of education, knowledge, experience and comfort; knowing the facts is equally important.
We know that 1,8 cineole (minute amounts) and menthol found in Peppermint essential oil instilled in the nose can trigger cold receptors in the lungs. When triggered, these cold receptors increase airway resistance, similar to what can be seen in exercise cold-induced asthma (5). This phenomenon can slow down breathing.
I like using this example for cold receptors when I share with others. This will make sense to anyone that lives where there are bitter cold winters. Chew a piece of mint gum or suck on a mint candy, then step outdoors in the cold and take in a deep breath. You will cough…a lot, and may struggle for the next breath. These constituents “can” do the same.
We learned when Robert Tisserand and Rodney Young published Essential Oil Safety 2e in 2014, to not apply eucalyptus oil (varieties high in 1,8 cineole) on or near the face of infants or children less than ten years of age (6).
These are two quotes pulled directly from Essential Oil Safety, 2nd Edition:
“1,8 cineole does not appear to be as toxic as is often believed, although elevated oral doses certainly are toxic and children are susceptible to cineole toxicity. The instillation of 1,8 cineole into the noses of young children is clearly not a sensible procedure, but this should not be taken to mean that any preparation containing 1,8 cineole is highly dangerous to children per se” (7).
“Instillation of 1,8 cineole into the nose of children up to four years of age results in non-fatal but serious toxicity and may interfere with respiration”(8).
The key here is to understand that all of the information I have shared with you thus far does not equate to: “Never use eucalyptus essential oil under the age of ten”.
Additional Facts Brought To Light
I recently earned my advanced diploma in aromatic medicine with Mark Webb, and in class we discussed this topic in great detail. This is what we learned:
Oils containing high amounts of 1,8 cineole, can potentially pose an issue for children, specifically un-rectified Eucalyptus Globulus and Eucalyptus Smithii, which contain isovaleric aldehyde (IA). Isovaleric aldehyde has great potential for causing respiratory irritation (9).
In order to pull this information apart a bit, let’s look at what we know about aldehydes. Essential oils high in aldehydes can often be an in your face aroma, for example oils high in citral such as Lemon Myrtle Backhousia citriodora, Lemongrass Cymbopogon citratus, and Lemon Tea Tree Leptospermun petersonii .
The following research paper published in 2014 by the Military Medical Science Letters, states that “Many aldehydes are respiratory irritants which can cause inflammation or other adverse reactions in the respiratory system after being inhaled”(10).
In The Chemistry of Eucalyptus Oils, Penfold, A.R. states, “It has been found that the first “runnings” contain such objectionable substances as butyl aldehyde and isovaleric aldehyde which produce coughing, and it is very desirable that these extremely objectionable constituents should be removed” (11).
This respiratory irritation can mean coughing to the point of vomiting. These oils are also a higher risk for those with asthma. Eucalyptus Radiata carries much less potential for respiratory irritation due to the missing component of isovaleric aldehyde.
As an aromatherapist, I would never think of utilizing Eucalyptus Essential Oil instilled in the nose of a child. In my experience of reading research papers, good ones and bad, I have learned to use critical thinking and weigh everything out. After reading through the papers I have referenced regarding Eucalyptus, I do see how when used improperly and/or at very high doses where the risks lie.
As a general precaution, we should avoid using any eucalyptus oil high in 1,8 cineole on or near the face of a child under ten. It is important to understand that aromatherapy is a risk vs benefit; case by case modality. Therefore, there is no need to avoid the oil altogether, but respect its limits. When we better understand the facts we can make educated decisions for ourselves and our family.
(1) E. Joy Bowles (2004) The chemistry of Aromatherapeutic oils (3rd Ed) Crows Nest, N.S.W.: Allen & Unwin.
(2) Wyllie, J.P., Alexander, F.W. (1994) Nasal instillation of “Olbas Oil’ in an infant. Archives of disease in childhood. 70: 357-358
(3) Melis, K., Bochner, A., Janssens, G. (1989) Accidental nasal eucalyptol and menthol instillation. European journal of pediatrics. 148: 786-788
(4) Darben, T., Cominos, B., Lee, CT., Topical eucalyptus oil poisoning. (1998) Department of dermatology 39: 265-267
(5) Cold Weather Can Give You Exercise-induced Asthma. Retrieved from https://health.clevelandclinic.org/2015/03/cold-weather-can-give-you-exercise-induced-asthma/
(6) (7) (8) Tisserand, R., Young, R. (2014) Essential Oil Safety (2nd Ed) Edinburgh: Churchill Livingstone (p 273, 526)
(9) Webb, M. (2015) Aromatic Medicine, Integrated Advanced Essential Oil Therapeutics for Common Clinical Conditions (p 88-89)
(10) Patocka, J., Kuca, K. (2014) Irritant Compounds: Aldehydes. Military Medical Science Letters. vol. 83(4), p. 151-164
(11) Penfold, A.R. (1934) The Chemistry of Eucalyptus Oils. Sydney Open Journals Online Vol2. No1. (p25)
Leslie Moldenauer, CHNC, HHP, Certified Aromatherapist, has been studying natural living and holistic wellness for over 10 years. Leslie is a trusted resource that covers essential oil safety and encompasses all that natural living has to offer. She is passionate about providing education and tools to help others make decisions regarding safety above all things when utilizing aromatherapy in the home.