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Aromatherapy Articles

Aromatherapy and the SARS Virus

Is there a Simple Preventative?


Joie Power, Ph.D.

What is SARS? SARS (Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome) is a highly contagious, pneumonia-like respiratory virus which is now known to be caused by a new variant of the coronavirus. Named for their distinctive crown-like appearance, coronaviruses have been known for some time to be a cause of upper-respiratory illnesses, including the common cold, and occasionally, pneumonia. These viruses are very common and appear throughout the world. In the past, most respiratory illnesses arising from coronaviruses have been relatively mild and self-limiting, with fatalities confined to persons already in poor health at the time of infection. In contrast, the new coronavirus which produces SARS has resulted in fatalities in previously healthy persons.

The first SARS cases were recognized in February, 2003 and as of April 16, 2003 there were over 3000 known cases worldwide, with about 159 fatalities. Mainland China and Hong Kong have reported the greatest number of cases, followed by Singapore, Canada, the United States and Vietnam. Cases have also been reported in France, Germany, Indonesia, Japan, Italy, Kuwait, Ireland, Sweden, Switzerland, Spain, Thailand, South Africa, Malaysia, and the Philippines. To date, there have been no confirmed deaths from SARS in the US; otherwise, mortality rates vary from about 4% to 10% in other parts of the world. As of this writing, the mortality rate appears to have been highest in Canada.

How SARS is Spread: SARS, like other respiratory illnesses, appears to spread through contact with infected persons. The virus is aerosolized in droplets of fluid expelled when a victim sneezes or coughs and is then breathed in by others in the immediate area. The CDC reports that it is also possible that it can be spread more broadly through the air or by touching an object that has been contaminated. Epidemiologists with the World Health Organization have stated that there may be other means of environmental transmission as well. CDC and WHO have developed recommendations for healthcare workers in contact with SARS patients which include the use of N-95 respirators, eye protection, and disposable gowns and gloves, in addition to standard procedures for infectious illnesses (hand washing, etc.). Guidelines for SARS patients and their family members include face masks; frequently washing and disinfecting hands, clothing, bedding, and household surfaces; and, no sharing of food and items. As concerns about this illness have spread, the use of face masks has become common in public places in some countries. Many travel advisories have also been issued and travel to areas of China and Canada has drastically decreased.

Treatment of SARS: Although modern medical science has developed effective treatment for many bacterial infections, there are few effective antiviral drugs and none that are known to act specifically against SARS. At present, the mainstream medical approach for dealing with SARS has been to provide supportive treatment (which may include interventions such as draining fluid from the lungs); antibiotics to control secondary bacterial infections; steroids to help control some of the symptoms of SARS; and the use of existing antiviral agents in hopes that they may have some effect.

Aromatherapy and SARS: Although modern pharmacological science has produced many effective antibiotics for combating bacterial infections, it has been far less successful in developing useful antiviral agents, or "viricides". Viruses are many hundreds of times smaller than bacteria and could not even be seen until the development of the electron microscope. Viruses are also harder to kill because they are not exactly alive in the first place. Unlike the bacterium, which is a living cell that has all the biological "machinery" for carrying out life processes, including reproduction, a virus is nothing more than a single or double strand of RNA or DNA wrapped in a coat of protein. The virus may lie dormantly in the air, soil, water, or fecal matter for some time before entering a host where it can immediately or eventually reproduce itself in a destructive way. The immune system rallies to fight off viruses just as it does bacteria or any foreign invader (such as a transplanted organ). In the case of viruses that produce the common cold, measles, or some forms of pneumonia, the immune system of a relatively healthy person is able to fight off the virus. In most cases, SARS patients are also able to overcome the virus and survive but in about 4 to 10% of cases the infection overwhelms the body's defenses and the patient dies.

Jane Buckle, author of Clinical Aromatherapy in Nursing, quotes an article from the science pages of the Economist Magazine saying that "no viral epidemic has ever been stopped by drugs". She goes on to say that synthetic viricides are difficult to manufacture and that none appear to be totally effective and are accompanied by moderate to severe side effects. Since new viruses appear all the time from unknown sources and since mainstream treatments are lacking, viral diseases represent a significant threat to health worldwide.

The effectiveness of some essential oils as both antibacterial and antiviral agents has been reported for a very long time. During the bubonic plague (caused by the Yersinia pestis bacillus) that swept through Europe in the Middle Ages, killing more than 30% of the population in affected areas, it was observed that people who worked in the lavender distilleries and in other industries using essential oils rarely contracted the disease. Several recipes for preventing plague with essential oils became popular during this time and it was common for people to carry bundles of dried herbs mixed with essential oils on their person. In addition to lavender, cedarwood and cypress were often used. While certainly of interest, anecdotal evidence of this kind is not scientific. In more modern times, anecdotal evidence for the effectiveness of essential oils against both bacteria and viruses has steadily accumulated and, to some more importantly, proper scientific investigations have been conducted since the 1950's.

A number of essential oils have been shown in scientific research studies to have actions against a variety of viruses including Herpes Simplex I, Herpes Zoster (shingles), some strains of influenza virus, adenovirus, glandular fever, viral enteritis, viral enterocolitis, viral hepatitis, viral neuritis, polio, cowpox, human rhinovirus Type II, Newcastle Disease, mumps, parainfluenza virus 1,2, and 3, and even HIV-1. Specific essential oils have been shown to act against specific viruses. For example, essential oil of Houttynia cordata was shown in a 1994 Japanese study to have remarkable effects against HIV-1 but no effects against polio or coxsackievirus).

Writing in 1980, the famous French surgeon, Dr. Jean Valnet, reported his clinical success in treating serious cases of shingles and influenza with a mixture of essential oils. Some of the oils he mentions include pine, thyme and lemon which are widely used as antivirals in clinical aromatherapy practice today. During the 1990's doctors Franchomme and Peneol also reported clinical success in the use of essential oils against viral infections.

In some studies, specific components of essential oils have been isolated and found to have antiviral properties. These include, among others, anethole, carvone, beta-caryophyllene, citral, eugenol, limonene, linalool, and linalyl acetate. Several methods of antiviral action have been proposed for essential oils and essential oil components. For example, investigators have hypothesized that some essential oils interfere with surface glycoproteins in the viral envelope, thus preventing attachment of the virus to host cells. Other essential oils are believed to attack viruses in the host cells, possibly at the level of the cell membrane. Of course, many essential oils are well known for their ability to stimulate the immune system and may offer some indirect protection against viral infection through these effects.

Dr. Franchomme has suggested that coated viruses (those with an external lipid layer) are sensitive to those essential oils which have high levels of mono-terpene alcohols and phenols whereas uncoated viruses are sensitive to oils high in terpenoid ketones. Peneol suggests further that essential oils alter the pH and electrical resistance of the body in a way that is less favorable to viruses. Concerning the prevention and treatment of the flu, he suggests that if essential oils are used externally right at the onset of symptoms, the influenza can be stopped on the first day. He also suggests external use of essential oil blends as a preventative measure.

Although the research demonstrating the antiviral effects of essential oils seems to have been largely ignored by mainstream American medicine, it has not been ignored by companies in Europe involved in the development of natural alternatives to synthetic medicines. Patents have been filed abroad for antiviral preparations based on essential oils and commercial antiviral preparations employing essential oils have been available for some time.

Essential Oil Blends for SARS: What does this means for the current outbreak of SARS? Since SARS has only recently appeared, there have not been any studies which have examined the effectiveness of essential oils against this virus. Thus it cannot be said at this time that essential oils have any action against SARS. However, since essential oils have been shown to have effects against a very wide range of other viruses and are also known to be immune systems stimulants it is possible that some essential oils may also prove to be of help in reducing the spread of SARS. Given the present situation, there is an urgent need for research to determine the effectiveness of essential oils against SARS. Since the action of essential oils against viruses appears to have a marked degree of specificity (in other words, since only certain oils act against certain viruses), a wide range of known anti-viral essential oils should be investigated, as well as various blends of essential oils. In dealing with viral infections in general (flu, colds, etc.), clinical aromatherapists most often utilize blends of essential oils, rather than single oils. In order to be safely employed by many people, any essential oil blend needs to be free from those essential oils that are known to produce a high frequency of allergic reactions or to have other undesirable side effects. One of the great advantages of using essential oils is that they can be used externally, either by diffusing them into the air in the home or clinic; by applying them to the body in a massage oil; or by applying a drop to a face mask. Special nasal inhalers are also available. These are small clips that fit into the nose and protect the skin from contact with the oil.

All persons who choose to use any essential oil blend in SARS affected areas are advised to follow all other recommended and common sense precautions for avoiding the spread of SARS since scientific studies have not yet been conducted to determine the effectiveness of essential oils against SARS virus.

*This information is provided for educational interest and is not intended to diagnose, treat, or cure any disease.

Copyright © 2010 Joie Power, Ph.D. / The Aromatherapy School  |  All Rights Reserved

This article, "Aromatherapy and the SARS Virus" was originally published for Dreaming Earth Botanicals, LLC

Dr. Power is a retired board certified neuropsychologist and former Assistant Professor of Surgery/Neurosurgery at the Medical College of Georgia, where she performed intra-operative cortical mapping with renowned neurosurgeon Herman Flanigan, M.D. She has over 20 years of clinical experience in both in-patient and out-patient settings and during her years of practice has also been both a practitioner and student of alternative healing methods, including herbal medicine, aromatherapy, Reiki, Chinese Medicine, and other energetic healing systems. Her extensive formal training and experience in the olfactory and limbic systems of the brain give her a unique qualification for understanding the actions of essential oils in the body. Dr. Power, founder of one of the earliest essential oil companies in the U.S. to specialize in therapeutic quality essential oils, is now a clinical consultant for Artisan Aromatics as well as an internationally known writer and teacher in the fields of aromatherapy and alternative medicine. Her approach to aromatherapy weaves together her solid scientific training and strong clinical skills with a holistic philosophy that honors body, mind and spirit. Dr. Joie Power is also the author of The Quick Study Guide to Aromatherapy and numerous published articles on aromatherapy and related topics.

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