Lipoid, or lipid, pneumonia is a serious condition that is caused when lipids begin affecting the smooth function of the lungs. Lipid is the scientific name for any fatty acid whose particles are not soluble in water. Waxes, oils, and cholesterol are classified as lipids and can all potentially cause this inflammatory condition.
This has caused some serious concern for those who regularly use aromatherapy and essential oils for enjoyment and relaxation. After all, if essential oils are “oils” and oils are “lipids,” doesn’t this mean that breathing essential oils could potentially cause this unwanted condition?
You will be relieved and happy to know that this is not the case. But, to provide some scope and understanding of the issue, here is what science has to say about essential oils and lipoid pneumonia.
What is Lipoid (Lipid) Pneumonia?
Pneumonia is a condition of the lungs that causes the tiny alveoli air sacs to become inflamed. This inflammation is most often caused as an immune response to pathogens that have overwhelmed the lungs’ defensive structures and reached the sensitive alveoli.
As these air sacs become inflamed, they fill with a purulent liquid (pus) and this diminishes their capacity to pass air to the bloodstream. Some of the symptoms of pneumonia include shortness of breath, moderate to severe coughing spells, headaches, muscle fatigue, drowsiness, nausea, and more.1
In the case of lipid pneumonia, this inflammation and interference with alveoli function is caused by the presence of lipids. There are two types of lipid pneumonia: endogenous and exogenous.2
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Endogenous lipids are those that are produced inside the body and buildup where they shouldn’t. Cholesterol is a locally produced lipid that is used in a variety of bodily processes and functions. Lungs that are affected by a blockage or hypoxia (lack of oxygen supply to a specific area) can potentially begin accumulating cholesterol along with damaged areas of the lungs, causing inflammation that leads to pneumonic conditions.
Exogenous lipids are the type coming into the lungs from outside the body. Waxes and oils are abundant in our society and many of these have been aerosolized. The two most common ways that exogenous lipids are introduced to the lungs is through intentional or accidental inhalation or aspiration, which is when food solids or liquids are sent down the “wrong pipe,” entering the trachea rather than the esophagus.
For the most part, exogenous lipoid pneumonia is a fairly rare condition. While it is considered an occupational hazard for commercial diving operations, the number of documented cases is very low.
The very first case of lipoid pneumonia was observed in infants who had inhaled droplets of oil. Other cases of lipoid pneumonia have been caused by oil pulling, taking mineral oil as a laxative, and inhaling pesticides.3,4,5,6
What Are Essential Oils?
Contrary to what their name suggests, essential oils are actually not oils at all. They have been called oils because they share the same hydrophobic reaction to water that oils do, but the similarities end there. A simple experiment with a drop of essential oil and an equivalent drop of regular cooking oil will reveal the great differences.
When placed on a clean sheet of paper, the drop of cooking oil will take a long time to evaporate if it ever does, and will more likely soak into the surface below. The essential oil drop, on the other hand, will evaporate very quickly and fill the room with the delightful fragrance of its aromatic particles. Furthermore, a top-quality essential oil will leave absolutely no trace on a clean sheet of paper.
This is because essential oils are made of volatile organic compounds (VOCs), like terpenes, phenols, and other phytocompounds. The essential oil of a plant represents a collection of the plant’s secondary metabolites, a special chemical profile that gives that specific plant its individuality.
For example, the monoterpenes linalool, as found in Myrrh and lemongrass, and menthol, found in mint, have the capacity to interrupt neural transmissions, which could be a serious threat to a pint-sized plant-eating predator. But, both of these essential oils have been found to have a calming effect when inhaled or ingested by humans.7,8
A plant uses these secondary metabolites to protect itself from predators, attract pollinators, and otherwise interact with their world. Because they must be dispersed far and wide to function well, these special phytochemicals evaporate very easily. While topical and oral use of essential oils should be done with caution and an enlightened perspective, inhaling essential oils has been found to be safe, healthy, and therapeutic.9
Final Notes –– Will Breathing Essential Oils Cause Lipid Pneumonia?
Just the words “breathe” and “oils” together in the same sentence sounds like a recipe for disaster. But, as you can see from the research provided, there is absolutely no risk of lipoid pneumonia or any other lung condition in breathing essential oils, simply because pure essential oils contain no lipids whatsoever.
While some of the stronger essential oils should be used in a ventilated space and only as directed, studies have shown only positive results from this regular practice. However, it is important to make sure the essential oils you are breathing are made from the most reputable providers of 100% pure essential oils –– always do your research.
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