Soothe Your Throat with Eucalyptus

Eucalyptus is a handy herb to have around as it soothes sore throats and nasal passages.

| July/August 1998

As I was preparing for the recent birth of my second child, I spent some time getting the layette clothes out of storage, setting up the changing table and crib, and running through a mental “refresher course” about how to care for a newborn. While I did this, I had a curious sensation of “smelling” eucalyptus strongly in my mind, a phantom scent that came from memories triggering the olfactory area of my brain.

Anyone who has been in a florist shop with dried flower arrangements knows the distinctive, sharp smell of eucalyptus branches. When my son was born, I received a flower arrangement that smelled so strongly of eucalyptus that I had to put it outside.

I also have a memory of eucalyptus from my own childhood. When my younger brother was an infant, my mother put a steam vaporizer in his room when he was sick and rubbed his tiny chest with Vicks VapoRub, which contains a eucalyptus compound. Now I strongly associate the scent of eucalyptus with infants.

Eucalyptus chemistry

The pungent aroma of eucalyptus (Eucalyptus globulus) comes from many of its components, but by far the strongest and most distinctive is 1,8 cineole, commonly known as eucalyptol. Eucalyptol is part of a large group of aromatic, fat-soluble phytochemicals called terpenes, which are major components of all essential oils. It’s found in many herbs that have distinctive aromas, including basil, cajeput, cinnamon, lavender, nutmeg, peppermint, rosemary, and tea tree. Eucalyptol relaxes the airways, soothes sore throats, and opens congested sinuses and nasal passages—the reason it’s in products such as Vicks VapoRub.

Menthol-eucalyptus chest poultices and cough drops have been used for hundreds of years, and ­scientists agree that they’re effective. A 1996 study at the University of Vienna shows that eucalyptol is well absorbed into the blood by breathing the vapors. The peak concentration occurs after approximately eighteen minutes, so it makes sense to rub on a salve or dissolve a eucalyptus lozenge in your mouth and breathe in the vapor over time.

Diaper dilemma

Luckily, my son hasn’t ever had a bad cough, but eucalyptol and related phytochemicals came to his rescue in another way. When he was three weeks old, I took him for a routine checkup. He had some diaper rash, which was aggravated by the September heat. It didn’t seem to bother him, but the pediatrician mentioned that in newborns such rashes can be caused by a yeast infection and can get worse. She wrote me a prescription for an antifungal medication.

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