Essential oil poisonings on the rise

Just because it’s natural doesn’t mean it’s safe.

While the use of essential oils for minor ailments is increasing, so too is the number of cases of essential oil poisoning due to incorrect usage.

A study conducted by the University of Sydney found that calls to the NSW Poisons information centre for incidents involving essential oils has steadily increased each year from 2014 to 2018.

Essential oils are volatile, aromatic liquids typically used added to vaporisers and diffusers and are widely available in supermarkets, health food stores and pharmacies.

The study’s lead author Dr Rose Cairns revealed that, of the 1177 calls placed in 2017-2018, 63% involved a child under 15 being poisoned.

“It's worrying, as particularly in children as a little as five millilitres of some oils can cause rapid and life-threatening onset of toxicity,” Dr Cairns said.

“Just because something is natural doesn’t necessarily mean it is safe.”

About 80% of essential oil poisonings were accidental and 13% were the result of mistaking the oil for a medication. 

Dr Cairns recommended essential oils be safely stored out of reach of children and kept separate from oral medications to prevent errors.

“Many of these products don’t come with child-resistant closures and flow restrictors, which I would like to see made mandatory,” Dr Cairns said.

The study’s co-author, Dr Joanna Harnett, warned against ingesting essential oils.

“The majority of essential oils are not considered safe for ingestion,” Dr Harnett said.

Symptoms of essential oil poisoning include nausea, vomiting, seizures, impaired coordination and breathing difficulties. 

Essential oils most frequently involved in calls to poisons information

  1. Eucalyptus (46%)
  2. Tea tree (17%)
  3. Lavender (6%)
  4. Clove (4%)
  5. Peppermint oils (3.5%)

If you suspect you have been exposed to essential oils, call the Poisons Helpline on 13 11 26.