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Herbal Aromatherapy™ for Congestion

When you’re feeling congested, all you really want is to not feel congested anymore so you can function throughout the day and then sleep well at night. Sounding like a train whistle or a goose when you’re just trying to breathe probably doesn’t make it to the top of anyone’s favorites list. Luckily, there are many simple things we can do to help keep our airways clear and support our immune systems so we can get back to feeling normal.

Herbal Steams

If I’m at home, herbal steams are my favorite thing to do when I’m feeling congested. I’ll fill a large cereal bowl halfway with eucalyptus leaves, rosemary leaves, thyme leaves, lavender buds and a chunk of ginger, and pour freshly boiled water over them. I’ll then sit down at the table, lean over the bowl (keep your eyes closed) and let the aromatic steam work its magic.

If you want to try this, you can drape a towel over your head and the bowl to amplify the effects of the steam application. Take breaks as needed if you need to blow your nose. The first time I tried a steam, I thought that it was making my congestion worse because leaning over that bowl isn’t exactly pleasant when you feel like your insides are trying to come out through your nose, but 10 minutes after finishing the steam, I suddenly realized I was breathing normally and my airways were clear! Because it’s so effective, it’s my go-to remedy when I’m feeling stuffy and need some relief. It also smells great and gives your skin a nice facial at the same time! I like to do steams sans-makeup and follow up with a face mask.

Aromatherapy Steams

If I’m not at home, I’ll usually do an aromatherapy steam instead of an herbal steam because it’s more convenient. I can even make do with a coffee mug full of hot water and a single drop of essential oil. To do an aromatherapy steam, you would just swap out the herbs above for one drop of essential oil – either ginger, lavender, rosemary, thyme or peppermint would work well – and breathe the steam from the mug for a minute or two. Make sure to keep your eyes shut throughout the application.

Aromatherapy steams are nice because you can leave them out on the desk for an hour or two after you’ve finished and let the aroma of the essential oil continue to escape into the air as the water cools.

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Fire Cider

If you’ve ever had fire cider, you know that feeling it gives you as soon as it hits your palate – your eyes widen and your ears turn red as steam starts coming out your ears and you start coughing…

That might be a slight exaggeration, but it really is powerful stuff and it definitely helps to clear those sinuses pretty quickly. I’ve found that taking a spoonful or so of it every time I walk through the kitchen when I’m noticing the very first signs of a cold really helps to ward off congestion and it has sometimes even helped me to not get sick after all. Fire cider is full of immune stimulating, circulatory herbs. It’s a great option when you’re feeling congested.

I’ve written a recipe for fire cider – you can find the ingredients and a how-to video here.

Immune Supportive Formulas

One homemade remedy that works well for supporting the immune system, either as a tonic or when we’re just not feeling great, is elderberry syrup. It can be taken regularly throughout the day until symptoms fade and it’s yummy enough that kids actually like taking it too. In fact, it’s hard to keep it around for long once you make a batch! I’ve got a recipe for it here, along with some extra info about elderberry’s prowess for immune health. I also like to use Rosehip syrup; it’s tasty and very effective.

You could use elecampane, mullein, violet, or other herbs in your syrups to help soothe the respiratory system whilst you’re recovering too.

Lots of Self Care

It’s much too easy to power through congestion and just keep right along with our busy schedules and work routines because, even though it’s unpleasant and uncomfortable, congestion isn’t as debilitating as something like nausea is. Because of this, we often try to continue through our illness instead of allowing our bodies some extra time and rest to recuperate, which can actually prolong the period of time that we’re sick.
Take some extra time to treat your body well when you’re feeling congested. Treat yourself to a hand or foot bath. Spend some time reading. Head outdoors for some vitamin D and go for a leisurely walk. Most of all, make sure you’re getting more rest than usual so your body doesn’t have to work as hard to get rid of the cause of your symptoms.

Things to Look for in Your Apothecary

When you’re looking for herbs or essential oils (or other herbal products) in your apothecary that might be able to help you with congestion, look for things with the following therapeutic properties:

– decongestant
– mucolytic
– mucilaginous
– antispasmodic
– antitussive
– calming / anxiolytic / sedative
– diaphoretic (if there’s also a fever present)

Plants that have these characteristics will generally help your body deal with excess mucous whilst also calming coughs, soothing the throat and mucous membranes, and helping you to relax so you can rest more easily.

Do you have a go-to remedy when you’re feeling stuffy and a bit yucky? Tell me about it in the comments section.

Much love,


Erin Stewart is an herbalist, NAHA certified aromatherapist, organic gardener and urban homesteader. She grows over 150 kinds of aromatic and medicinal plants for her own apothecary and distills essential oils and hydrosols in her PNW garden. Erin is the founder of Floranella and of AromaCulture’s herbalism + aromatherapy magazine.

Want to learn more about herbalism and aromatherapy?

AromaCulture Magazine is filled with educational articles, case studies and recipes written by practicing herbalists and certified aromatherapists. New issues are published each month and issues are available individually or via subscription. Visit www.aromaculture.com for more information.

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3 thoughts on “Herbal Aromatherapy™ for Congestion”

  1. Madison Jarboe

    I’ve recently joined up with Young Living for essential oils, and have received a lot of advice and testimonials regarding aromatherapy rollers to use for congestion. I noticed that you only mention the use of essential oils in your aromatherapy steams, and was wondering what your knowledge/advice would be regarding the use of aromatherapy rollers for congestion?

    I am also a new nurse, so a lot of my friends and family are already coming to me for advice. I tell them what I think, or that I don’t know, and then urge them as strongly as possible to follow up with their doctor for official diagnosis and treatment, since diagnosing is not in my scope of practice. However for something like congestion, I’d like to be able to recommend safe, proven herbal and aromatherapy techniques that they can try until they see their PCP. This is why I want your take on rollers; if there’s potential that they could cause harm, I want to know so that I can either advocate against their use, or do what I can to ensure they’re used properly.

    Thank you!

    1. Erin Stewart

      Hi Madison! Congratulations on becoming a nurse!

      Rollers are fine and safe when properly diluted (watch for contraindications/interactions and age-related considerations based on the oils you’re choosing), but I personally think inhalation is the best application for respiratory issues like congestion. If you think about it, the quickest way to deliver something decongestant or expectorant to the respiratory system is to breathe it in. That’s why I like to use things like steams or even smelling salts or inhalers for respiratory issues – breathing in those aromatic molecules sends them right to the targeted area where they will be most beneficial.

      That said, I do think a roll-on blend (diluted) or an aromatic salve could be helpful as a chest rub, but I would consider using a steam or smelling salts in addition to the roll-on if I were to choose it as an application.

      I hope that helps. Let me know if you have any other questions. =)

      Much love,

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