Essential Oils and Kids: Do They Mix?
Essential oils are seeping into the spotlight — proponents claim they can boost immune function, improve sleep and even obliterate cold and flu symptoms. These highly-concentrated aromatic oils are produced by distilling oils from the roots, leaves, stems, flowers and bark of plants with steam or water. Essential oils are especially popular among parents who are seeking nonpharmacological relief for common kid problems like eczema, sleep issues and teething.
While there’s truth to the notion that plants and their oils offer health perks – after all, prescription medications such as aspirin, digitalis (used for types of heart conditions) and some cancer drugs are derived from plants – they also have the potential to cause harm, especially in infants and children.
Essential Oil Do’s and Don’ts
“A lot of parents think that since essential oils are natural, they’re safe,” says Kathleen Blumer, M.D., pediatrician at Henry Ford Health System. “But arsenic is natural. Opium is natural. Nightshade is natural. And all three can be deadly.”
Dr. Blumer says essential oils may be helpful for specific ailments, but only when used correctly and in small doses. Follow these do’s and don’ts with your kiddos for the best – and safest – results.
- Use a carrier oil. Never apply essential oils directly to the skin. Instead, dilute the solution with a safe and mild carrier oil, such as fractionated coconut oil, almond oil, jojoba oil or olive oil. For children, just one drop of essential oil mixed with three tablespoons of carrier oil is enough to deliver the desired effect.
- Focus on short-term use. Essential oils are most effective when they’re used to treat an acute problem, such as mild skin infections, sleep problems and allergies (use caution with eucalyptus and menthol in young children). Using oils daily for several weeks could create more problems than it solves, including photosensitivity (sensitivity to sun) and unintended effects on your gut microbiome (essential oils with antibiotic properties can interfere with the population of good bacteria in your gut). In fact, studies show the greatest impact occurs with just a few days of repeated use.
- Test it first. Rather than apply diluted oil on a large surface, such as the bottom of the feet, use a very small amount on the leg to test it out. Wait a day to make sure it doesn’t irritate your child’s skin, especially if she is sensitive, before applying it the recommended two to three times a day. Something that works well for one person can be terrible for another, even a close relative.
- Use a diffuser. If you’re nervous to apply even diluted oil directly to your child’s skin, consider using a diffuser to circulate the aroma into the air. Diffusing allows you to deliver a lower dose.
- Use a diffuser if you have allergies. If you, or your children, have asthma or respiratory problems, avoid diffusing oils into the air. Unfortunately, using a diffuser can exacerbate symptoms of these disorders.
- Leave essential oils within reach of children. Many essential oils have a sweet aroma that kids find appealing. Make sure they’re locked away and out of reach. Ingesting oils can be catastrophic for both adults and children.
- Apply oils to kids’ hands. Ingesting oils orally can cause blistering in the mouth, among other ails. So make sure to apply them to a body part or area of the skin that your child can’t put in his or her mouth. Some parents focus on the feet, but that can be a problem for young children who like to put their feet in their mouths!
- Use oils on children younger than six months. Children under six months have thinner skin and more sensitive immune systems. Also, keep in mind that essential oils do cross the placenta, so it’s best to avoid them during pregnancy.
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Essential oils are highly concentrated, and children are especially sensitive to their aromas. As such, your child may suffer from a serious adverse reaction to oil application, particularly if it’s not diluted with a carrier oil. Inhaling undiluted essential oils can lead to an asthma attack, chemical burns (if used too strong or too long) or even aspiration pneumonia.
And since children’s immune systems aren’t fully developed, they may have trouble managing the effects of essential oils. “Kids who are having an adverse reaction may experience redness, irritation, itching and phototoxicity, meaning their skin is more sensitive to the sun,” says Blumer. If your child has an adverse reaction, immediately discontinue use of the oil and seek medical care if the reaction is serious or doesn’t improve.
Most important, remember that using essential oils is not a substitute for medicine or vaccines.
If you’re interested in using essential oils or other home remedies to treat symptoms of childhood illnesses, talk with your child’s doctor. To find a doctor at Henry Ford, visit henryford.com or call 1-800-HENRYFORD (436-7936).
Dr. Kathleen Blumer is a pediatrician seeing patients at Henry Ford Medical Centers in Dearborn and Hamtramck.