Complementary therapies, including aromatherapy, are a non-pharmacological approach to managing the distressing symptoms and side effects of cancer and its treatments. The increased popularity of essential oils has heightened patients’ and nurses’ interest in providing aromatherapy as a way to address symptoms such as nausea, fatigue, anxiety, and decreased appetite. Inhaled essential oils are mostly safe with infrequent, mild adverse effects.
A group of nurses at the Arthur G. James Cancer Hospital at the Ohio State University led a study evaluating the effect of inhaled essential oils at improving physical symptoms among patients with cancer receiving infusion therapy.
Amber Williams, MSN, RN, OCN®, a nurse educator at the hospital, first-authored the paper published in Oncology Nursing Forum and Amy Rettig, DNP, MALM, RN, APRN-BC, a clinical nurse specialist, was the study’s senior author.
The four inhaled essential oils evaluated were ginger, chamomile, bergamot, and almond. The first three oils were selected because they had previously demonstrated evidence of improving patients’ cancer- and treatment-related symptoms. The almond oil was used as a control group since it is mostly odorless.
The research team recruited patients with gastrointestinal, neuroendocrine, and skin cancer to participate. Patients were excluded if they had asthma or allergies to the essential oils.
One hundred forty-seven patients participated in the study and had data to analyze. Most participants had gastrointestinal cancer (76.9%), were men (62.6%), and had a mean age between 61 and 65 years old. Four participants reported adverse events using the inhaled essential oil and stopped using it.
Each participant was randomly selected to receive one essential oil. They were given an inhalation bottle with the essential oil placed on a cotton ball and asked to open and sniff the oil three times a day (morning, noon, and evening) for seven days. Participants also reported a variety of symptoms each day in a study-provided journal.
The results indicated that compared to the almond essential oil, the ginger essential oil improved patients’ experience of anxiety (p = 0.04) and fatigue (p = 0.048). Ginger essential oil did not improve appetite or nausea compared to the almond essential oil. Nor did chamomile or bergamot essential oils significantly improve anxiety, appetite, fatigue, or nausea compared to the almond essential oil.
Participants reported that the essential oils were easy to use, but only moderately thought that it improved their symptoms, or that they would continue using the essential oil in the future.
The researchers noted that participants reported low levels of symptoms at the beginning of the study, and this may explain why several essential oils showed limited effects. Participants may likely be engaged in additional symptom management strategies that provided symptom relief.
Despite such limitations, this is a large-scale randomized clinical trial assessing the effects of inhaled essential oils in a rigorous manner. Nurses considering non-pharmacological and complementary therapies to help their patients address their anxiety and fatigue should consider implementing a similar protocol with inhaled ginger essential oil. Oncology nurses can also learn about the safety and use of essential oils as a holistic, integrative approach to supporting patients receiving infusion therapy. Future studies may target patients with a high symptom burden and consider other factors likely contributing to the need for additional symptom management approaches.