How safe are essential oils for children?
The Doc Smitty answers your questions
I decided to tackle the subject of essential oils. I know many people out there are firm believers in how effective they are. So before I approached this topic, I did some pretty significant research into what is out there on the use of oils in children.
Recently, a report from the Tennesee poison center caught my eye with a report that said reports of toxic exposures to oils doubled from 2011 to 2015. Of those reported cases, four out of every five were in children.
As I began my research on essential oils, I asked what you guys wanted to know. I asked on Facebook what you all wanted to know and you guys had some great questions.
Most indicated that they “really wanted to hear my opinion.”
I will take the questions and try to divide them up by category as best as I can.
I feel like I owe it to you, and your children, to give my candid answers on the subject.
Q: What harm have you seen from patients choosing oils over modern medicine?
A: I’ve seen two examples of this. The first were parents using oils for their child’s eczema. They came to me after one month of attempts (including multiple different regimens) to treat with oils and the child ended up having a secondary staph infection of their eczema because the skin was open. In fairness, severe eczema happens and secondary skin infections happen, but most of my patients with eczema do not get that severe with the medications I typically recommend. The second patient was one who had an upper respiratory infection that led to croup (noisy, barky cough). The parents were trying oils at home for three days (again multiple different attempts to get the “right” oil) before they ended up in the emergency room and admitted for two days for difficulty breathing. The theme here has three components:
1.The oil itself did not hurt the child.
2.The ambiguity as to which oil should be used led to multiple different regimens and oils being tried.
3.The biggest problem with these two is the delay in receiving appropriate care.
Q: What is the best way to explain proper dilution to others?
A: Ummmm…I don’t know. Based on what I have seen regarding research this has not truly been studied, at least in children.
Q: Are there any that are harmful for use topically?
A: There are case reports of severe toxicity with topica application that uses eucalyptus and tea tree oil from those that I studied. These are mainly due to extensive application. Toxicity to any treatment is always related to dose. The more area you cover, the more likely it is to be toxic. There are also some reports of reactions with very small applications. The other concern I have (for which we don’t know the answer yet) is how does the toxicity change when these oils are being applied hourly (as I’ve seen recommended) or when multiple oils are being used at once.
Q: Can I use them in my child with asthma?
There are no studies that show effectiveness for asthma. Any inhaled substance with a small particle size that can get into the lungs could theoretically lead the airways to constrict which would actually cause more problem in children with asthma.
Q: What happens when oil are ingested (purposefully or accidental)?
Even most pro-oil websites don’t recommend ingestion of oils in children and to use extreme caution in adults. Because we do not have studies that evaluate the safety and appropriate dosing for ingestion by children, this is the one hard line I take with my patients who are using them. Please do not use them in this way.
Q: Have you seen allergic reactions?
The allergic reactions I have seen are mostly related to the skin. Application of anything topically can flare a child who has eczema or cause contact irritation of the skin.
Q: Are they really good for you or are you you doing more harm than good?
I don’t think we know the answer to this question on a global scale. If they do have all the anti-bacterial, anti-viral and all other properties, and will actually work for those uses (which are not proven in humans), would we go on to see essential oil-resistant-bacteria? I believe we would. Especially with the way they are currently being used. Basically applying whatever oil for whatever infection (I am basing this on the fact that anytime I see someone requesting help with which oil to use, they routinely get 5-10 suggestions). That is exactly the way resistance to antibiotics occurs - too many antibiotics for non-specific indications and next thing you know a certain antibiotics doesn’t work for certain infection any longer.
Q: Is it safe to use oils along with modern medicines?
We know that these oils can affect the liver and cause the liver to metabolize other medications faster or slower. This could lead to medications not being as effective or potentially be more toxic. Some information is being gathered in adults to try to figure this out but kids are not “little adults” and we’ll likely need research in children before we can answer this for sure.
More from Doc Smitty on this topic:
Justin Smith, M.D., is a Cook Children's pediatrician in Lewisville . View more from The Doc Smitty at his Facebook page.He attended University of Texas, Southwestern Medical School and did his pediatric training at Baylor College of Medicine. He joins Cook Children's after practicing in his hometown of Abilene for four years. He has a particular interest in development, behavior and care for children struggling with obesity. In his spare time, he enjoys playing with his 3 young children, exercising, reading and writing about parenting and pediatric health issues.