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Aromatherapy and Essential Oils (PDQ®)

Overview

This complementary and alternative medicine (CAM) information summary provides an overview of the use of aromatherapy and essential oils primarily to improve the quality of life of cancer patients. This summary includes a brief history of aromatherapy, a review of laboratory studies and clinical trials, and possible adverse effects associated with aromatherapy use.

This summary contains the following key information:

  • Aromatherapy is the therapeutic use of essential oils (also known as volatile oils) from plants (flowers, herbs, or trees) for the improvement of physical, emotional, and spiritual well-being.
  • Aromatherapy is used by patients with cancer primarily as supportive care for general well-being.
  • Aromatherapy is used with other complementary treatments (e.g., massage and acupuncture) as well as with standard treatments for symptom management.
  • Essential oils are volatile liquid substances extracted from aromatic plant material by steam distillation or mechanical expression; oils produced with the aid of chemical solvents are not considered true essential oils.
  • Essential oils are available in the United States for inhalation and topical treatment. Topical treatments are generally used in diluted forms.
  • Aromatherapy is not widely administered via ingestion.
  • The effects of aromatherapy are theorized to result from the binding of chemical components in the essential oil to receptors in the olfactory bulb, impacting the brain’s emotional center, the limbic system. Topical application of aromatic oils may exert antibacterial, anti-inflammatory, and analgesic effects.
  • Studies in animals show sedative and stimulant effects of specific essential oils as well as positive effects on behavior and the immune system. Functional imaging studies in humans support the influence of odors on the limbic system and its emotional pathways.
  • Human clinical trials have investigated aromatherapy primarily in the treatment of stress and anxiety in patients with critical illnesses or in other hospitalized patients. Several clinical trials involving patients with cancer have been published.
  • Aromatherapy has a relatively low toxicity profile when administered by inhalation or diluted topical application.
  • Aromatherapy products are not subject to approval by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration unless there is a claim for treatment of specific diseases.

Many of the medical and scientific terms used in the summary are hypertext linked (at first use in each section) to the NCI Dictionary of Cancer Terms, which is oriented toward nonexperts. When a linked term is clicked, a definition will appear in a separate window.

Reference citations in some PDQ CAM information summaries may include links to external Web sites that are operated by individuals or organizations for the purpose of marketing or advocating the use of specific treatments or products. These reference citations are included for informational purposes only. Their inclusion should not be viewed as an endorsement of the content of the Web sites, or of any treatment or product, by the PDQ Cancer CAM Editorial Board or the National Cancer Institute.

  • Updated: December 17, 2014