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Are essential oils healthy and safe; curing a chronic cough

January 29, 2022 at 4:00 a.m.

Q: I'm looking for ways to feel and sleep better. Could essential oils help? -- Jenna R., Freehold, New Jersey

A: That's a good question with a complicated answer, since the benefits and debits of essential oils depend on what you want to use them for, which ones you use and how you use them.

Basically, essential oils are extracts that concentrate some of the phytochemicals in a given plant. For example, it takes 250 pounds of lavender to create 1 pound of lavender essential oil. And about 5,000 pounds of rose petals are needed to make a pound of rose essential oil. We know that our sense of smell is a powerful tool that is linked to our fight or flight reactions (that's a dangerous smell, run!) and our sense of pleasure, even desire. That's why aromatherapy, using lemon or lavender oil, for example, is recommended for destressing and to reduce anxiety and depression. But, cautions the Cleveland Clinic's integrative medicine specialist Dr. Yufang Lin, the problem arises in how people use them. Lavender, for example, may be gentle and have many benefits, but there have also been studies that show that some preparations and uses of lavender oil (and tea tree oil) are hormone disruptors. And lemon oil is safe -- except one study found that when used topically it increases the risk of sunburn. Topical application of many oils comes with risks.

In addition, very few essential oils should be ingested. "Since they're so strong, they may be harmful," advises Dr. Lin. I believe using essential oils only for aromatherapy is the correct way to benefit from them. That is why I helped found Ascents clinical aromatherapy. That company's research shows the appropriate aromatherapy, used correctly, can provide benefits as wide ranging as decreased post-operative pain and decreased anxiety in infants undergoing MRIs. To discover the best aromatherapy choices, check out the Cleveland Clinic's oil by oil review of the pros and cons at; search for "essential oils." * * *

Q: I have developed a persistent cough, and with COVID-19 it makes people nervous. How can I figure out what it is from? -- Serge P., Chicago A: A cough can be a sign of so many things -- allergies, chronic sinus infections, even some medications, gastroesophageal reflux disease (acid reflux), chronic obstructive pulmonary disease and cancer. According to most experts, it qualifies as a chronic cough if it persists for eight weeks or more. Really persistent coughing can cause troubling physical and emotional problems, so identifying the cause is important. Make an appointment with your primary care doc or a specialist pronto, but here's a quick overview of possible triggers. Asthma and allergies are highly individual and you want to pinpoint your triggers, if this is the source of your cough. See a pulmonologist or allergist for a diagnosis.

Long-term exposure to air pollution, chemical fumes and other lung irritants, including cigarette smoke, can cause emphysema, chronic bronchitis and COPD (both together) -- all of which trigger coughing. Again, a pulmonologist can hone in on the cause and treatment.

Gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD) causes a burning sensation in the esophagus, and sometimes chronic coughing. If you have reflux and a cough, the two could be partners. A gastroenterologist can help you manage GERD.

High blood pressure medications known as ACE inhibitors are used to treat heart failure and high blood pressure. They frequently cause a persistent dry cough. A study in the British Medical Journal says that may result from increased concentrations of bradykinin, a peptide that promotes inflammation, in the respiratory tract.

As you can see, there are wildly different reasons for a chronic cough. You want to pay attention to when it happens -- what is in the air around you, what you have eaten, what position you are in (standing, sitting, laying down), what you are doing (exercising? resting?) and what medications you are taking. Then report your findings to your doctor and start sleuthing out the cause and a solution.

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