Aromatherapy involves the use of essential oils to relieve stress and enhance psychological well-being. The recent surge of interest in aromatherapy means that more and more people are keeping essential oils in their homes. Since essential oils are typically used in vaporizers, diffusers, or hot bathwater, oils are often kept on bathroom or kitchen shelves where they can be easily reached. This can prove problematic in a household that includes small children.
Essential Oils and Small Children
Although essential oils are derived from natural plant parts, they can be dangerous when misused. Many essential oils smell good enough to taste, and they’re packaged attractively in tiny vials that are very easy to open. Small wonder, then, that the first thought of many young children who get their hands on their parents’ essential oils is to put those oils in their mouths.
Essential oils are natural, but they owe their aromatic properties to an assortment of aldehydes, esters, ketones, phenols, and other volatile chemicals. If a child swallows even a minute amount of essential oil, gags, and then aspirates, he or she can develop a severe chemical pneumonia.
Some essential oils also cause allergic reactions in susceptible individuals. Children have thin skin and immature livers and thus may have an even more severe reaction to these oils than other susceptible individuals. Health care providers treated twice as many cases of toxic exposure to essential oils in 2015 than they did in 2011 according to a “Health Day” report published in May 2016, and four out of five of those exposures involved children.
Essential Oils Are Not Regulated
Another reason to be wary of essential oils particularly in regards to children’s health is that essential oils are not regulated. Although aromatherapy products are alleged to have positive health benefits, The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) performs no tests on them because as fragrances, essential oils fall under the category of cosmetics, which do not come under the FDA’s scrutiny in most cases. The FDA can only take action against a cosmetic if it’s unsafe when used according to the directions on its packaging.
The Effects of Essential Oils
While any essential oil can be harmful if it enters the lungs, certain essential oils are known to be toxic when absorbed through the skin in high amounts. The problem with most commercial essential oils, though, is that their labels don’t contain concentration information so it’s difficult to anticipate dose dependent responses. Essential oils known to be toxic in high doses include:
Camphor is easily absorbed particularly through small scrapes and scratches in the skin and has been linked to liver damage, seizures and death.
Clove oil contains a compound called eugenol that causes dermatitis and has been linked to the development of cancerous tumors.
Lavender oil can cause dermatitis, headaches, nausea and vomiting. It’s also been linked with gynecomastia in young boys.
In sensitive individuals, eucalyptus oil can cause headaches, nausea, vomiting and diarrhea. In high doses, it can be toxic to the kidneys.
There is some evidence that thyme oil inhibits blood clotting and therefore, may be linked to an increased risk of bleeding if taken in large amounts.
Tea tree oil is linked to a variety of skin inflammations in susceptible people including severe blistering rashes. It has also been linked to muscle tremors, edema, eczema and depression.
There is no reason not to take advantage of the beneficial effects of aromatherapy. But, prudent parents will store their essential oils out of reach of their young children, the same as they would with any other health-related product.
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