May 11, 2016

Essential oils pose growing poisoning danger

by Essential oils pose growing poisoning danger

With renewed popularity of essential oils, danger of poisonings — especially among children — also increases.


Essential oils are used as aromatic and homoeopathic natural remedies, but the oils can be toxic when ingested or aspirated, especially by children.

The Tennessee Poison Center, housed at Vanderbilt University Medical Center, reported the number of essential oil exposures doubled between 2011 and 2015 and 80 percent of cases involved children.

“There are hundreds of essential oils, and most of them contain multiple active ingredients, so the majority of the calls to the Tennessee Poison Center are grouped into an ‘other’ category,” said Justin Loden, PharmD, certified specialist in Poison Information at the Tennessee Poison Center. “Tea tree oil is commonly cited, and most of those cases are accidental ingestions by children.”

In recent years there has been a reawakened popularity of essential oils on the Internet. They can be applied to the skin, ingested and even diffused into the air by a vaporizer. The primary route of poisoning is by ingestion, but it may also occur by excessive or inappropriate application to the skin.

Children are at risk for poisoning because they may try to ingest essential oils from the container. Most have a pleasant smell but bitter taste, so children easily choke on them and aspirate the oil to their lungs, Loden said. Children are also at risk because their thin skin readily absorbs essential oils, and the protective barrier that covers their brain is easily penetrated.

Several essential oils such as camphor, clove, lavender, eucalyptus, thyme, tea tree and wintergreen oils are highly toxic. All of the oils produce oral and throat irritation, nausea and vomiting when ingested. Most essential oils either produce central nervous system stimulation, which results in agitation, hallucinations, delirium and seizures, or central nervous system depression, which results in lethargy and coma. Other toxic effects include painless chemical burns, hypotension, acute respiratory distress syndrome, acute liver failure, severe metabolic acidosis and cerebral edema depending on which essential oil is in question.

“The rule of thumb in toxicology is ‘the dose makes the poison’ so all essential oils are potentially harmful,” Loden said. “In children, poisoning typically occurs when they try to swallow the oil but choke so that a little of it goes into the lungs, which cause pneumonia; it only takes 2mL (less than half a teaspoonful) to do that. This hazard applies to every essential oil. Children have also been poisoned by excessive or inappropriate application of essential oils to the skin.”

Loden stresses these oils should be stored safely and properly. Please call Poison Control (1-800-222-1222) right away if someone swallows an essential oil or a product containing essential oils.

Tennessee Poison Center tips for using essential oils

  • Safely using and storing essential oils is extremely important.
  • Use essential oil products ONLY for their intended purpose.
  • Use only the amount stated on the label/guide.
  • Do not swallow an essential oil unless the label says to do so.
  • Do not use a product on the skin unless the label says to do so.
  • Do not leave the product out (i.e. as a pesticide) unless the label says to do so.
  • If you have bottles of essential oils at home, keep them locked up, out of sight and reach of children and pet at all times. Children act fast, so do poisons.

Early Childhood, Middle Childhood, Poisoning

8 thoughts on “Essential oils pose growing poisoning danger”

  1. Mo says:

    The words “Several, All, Most” is untrue. Many EO’s can be taken internally and externally including some on your toxic list. Too much of anything can make you sick including water. There are side affects and dangers for every single thing people put into the mouth. Let’s just start putting a growing danger or toxic label on everything. The only warning and label needed is “common sense” because apparently people need to be told everything these days.

    1. My Southern Health says:

      We understand your viewpoint. We have also written on this site about risk of poisoning with traditional medications and drugs, as well as household cleaners and other products. When we begin to see cases like this, it is our obligation to raise an alarm and inform — but it is not meant to suggest that only essential oils carry this risk. – Cynthia

    2. Pat DeBruce says:

      Thank you for posting your response…

  2. n2sing says:

    Why is it that when I call poison control they state that in the last year there has only been ONE report of an adverse reaction to essential oils? That ONE reaction was a child and it was a choking incident and there were no long term complications… So please explain where you got your data.

    1. My Southern Health says:

      Thank you for asking. Here is the explanation from the writer: “Tennessee Poison Control has a medical telephone hotline (Poison Help 1-800-222-1222) for poison emergency and information calls. Poison specialists — who are registered nurses, pharmacists and physicians — answer the telephone hotline 24 hours a day, seven days a week. The information in this report is explaining there was an increase in the number of calls they received concerning adults, children or pets who may have had ‘exposures’ to essential oils that raised health concerns. There was one, that you mentioned, that required a referral to a hospital and further health care. The poison specialists at TPC give first aid treatment advice or hospital referral and answer poison questions. Every call does not result in a trip to the emergency room. The data collected from these calls is tracked by type. The article is correct in explaining the number of calls reporting exposures to essential oils (type) saw an increase.”

      Thank you for reading. – Linda

  3. M says:

    100% pure doesn’t mean it’s 100% essential oil. Most cheap oils are diluted and contain toxic solvents used during extraction. Many also use pesticides. Always know where it was grown, how it was grown, how it’s extracted, and how to properly use essential oils. I’m very confident in my use of therapeutic grade EO’s and think there’s a lot of misinformation and little understanding.

    1. Jen says:

      What brands do you recommend that aren’t tainted wirh toxic solvents or pesticide… Or diluted? If brand says “Therapeutic Grade” does that mean they are safe from the aforementioned?

    2. Maura Ammenheuser says:

      Hi, Jen. Justin Loden, with the Poison Center, says the short answer is we can’t point you to any specific brand. The more complicated answer: There is no organization that grades or certifies essential oils in the U.S., and there is no formally approved grading standard used consistently throughout the essential oil industry. The closest you would get is the International Organization for Standardization (ISO). However, the ISO only provides specifications for the composition of the specific essential oil, not the quality (and quality is what you’re looking for if you want something to be “therapeutic” and free from adulterants).

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