Safety and first aid

Essential Oils – Health Warning

What is an essential oil?

Essential oils are any plant-based, volatile oil that contains a mixture of chemical compounds and have an aroma characteristic of the plant. Commonly used essential oils are eucalyptus oil, clove oil, tea tree oil and aromatherapy oils.

Vaporiser solutions used in steam vaporisers often contain one or more essential oils in lower concentrations to those used in aromatherapy.

What are essential oils used for?

Essential oils are commonly used in aromatherapy to bring about mental and physical wellbeing. Aromatherapy is the practice of blending different therapeutic essential oils to stimulate a desired response. Essential oils can be applied or massaged into the skin, inhaled or immersed in water.

While aromatherapy has been practiced for centuries in various cultures, it has not yet been properly evaluated for medical effectiveness. However, it remains a popular complementary therapy for helping with certain health conditions.

Examples include:

  • Eucalyptus oil: nasal decongestant, disinfectant.
  • Clove oil: toothaches.
  • Tea tree oil: antifungal, antibacterial, antiviral properties.
  • Peppermint: digestive disorders.
  • Lavender: anxiety, insomnia and restlessness.

What are the dangers of essential oils?

There have been claims made by companies producing essential oil products and their distributors that essential oils are ‘natural’ and therefore are ‘safe to consume’.

Essential oils are not safe to consume and can cause significant poisoning even if small amounts are ingested.

The Western Australian Poisons Information Centre (WAPIC) has recorded an increase in poisonings as a result of essential oil ingestions in children. It is therefore important that essential oils are stored securely in a child-resistant container and kept out of reach of children.

The use of undiluted essential oils on sensitive skin or in the nostrils can irritate or burn. Susceptible people may also develop an allergic reaction and a skin rash.

What are the symptoms of toxicity?

Essential oils are rapidly absorbed orally and symptoms can develop as quickly as 30 minutes after ingestion (some individuals experience delayed symptoms up to 4 hours after exposure). The severity of toxicity is dependent on the type of oil and the amount ingested.

Children are particularly susceptible. As little as 2mL (less than half a teaspoon) of eucalyptus oil can cause significant poisoning in an infant. Symptoms of toxicity include:

  • drowsiness, slow/shallow breathing, coma (after large ingestion)
  • seizures
  • persistent cough, gagging/choking, shortness of breath, wheezing
  • nausea, vomiting or diarrhoea
  • skin irritation (skin exposure)
  • eye redness, irritation or pain (eye exposures). 

What should I do after an exposure?

Ingestion:

  • rinse out the mouth
  • phone the Poisons Information Centre on 13 11 26 for advice
  • do not induce vomiting
  • do not give oral fluids until it is advised safe to do so by the Poisons Information Centre. This can increase of risk of vomiting and aspiration of fluid into the lungs.

Eye exposures:

  • Immediately rinse the eye(s) under running water, allowing the water to flow from the corner of the eye closest to the nose over the eye and outwards. This should be continued for 15 minutes. Persistent eye symptoms should be evaluated by a doctor. 

Skin:

  • Remove contaminated clothing and wash the skin with soap and water. See a doctor if symptoms do not resolve.

Inhalation:

  • Affected patients should be taken to fresh air.
  • If symptoms do not settle phone the Poisons Information Centre.

Who can I call for help?

  • The Western Australian Poisons Information Centre: phone 13 11 26. This service is available 7 days a week, 24 hours a day – also provides advice about poisonings, suspected poisonings, bites and stings, mistakes with medicines and poisoning prevention advice.
  • In an emergency, call Triple Zero (000) for an ambulance. 

This publication is provided for education and information purposes only. It is not a substitute for professional medical care. Information about a therapy, service, product or treatment does not imply endorsement and is not intended to replace advice from your healthcare professional. Readers should note that over time currency and completeness of the information may change. All users should seek advice from a qualified healthcare professional for a diagnosis and answers to their medical questions.