It might be hard to believe that something that’s been used as medicine for literally thousands of years could be as effective as an over-the-counter (OTC) drug. But it’s true. Essential oils—aromatic oils made from the fragrant parts of various plants—were first used by ancient cultures. But they are now popular among consumers of natural medicine—and for good reason.

Unlike OTC decongestants that can spike blood pressure and OTC antihistamines that can cause drowsiness and other unwanted effects, essential oils battle winter ailments safely and without adverse effects. Your best bet is to use essential oils in diluted topical applications that can be inhaled and improve circulation where applied. This form of aromatherapy works particularly well with respiratory complaints. Caveat: Because essential oils are very concentrated, when used incorrectly they can irritate or burn the skin and mucous membranes (such as the inside of the mouth and nose) and even the stomach if swallowed. That said, essential oils are high on my list of go-to natural remedies. Some of my favorites for winter (with instructions for safety)…* 

For the common cold: Spearmint. Spearmint is less irritating to sensitive, inflamed nasal passages than the more frequently used peppermint or eucalyptus.

What to do: Mix the spearmint essential oil in a carrier oil (such as almond or coconut oil), using a 1:10 ratio. Then put two drops of this mixture above your upper lip—one just below each nostril. This will reduce stuffiness and thin nasal mucus, allowing you to blow your nose effectively and to breathe more easily. Use spearmint oil in this way three times a day.

For sinusitis: Chamomile. Because bacteria are common causes of sinusitis, chamomile’s antibacterial properties make it good medicine for this annoying and often painful condition.

What to do: Mix the chamomile essential oil with a carrier oil in a 1:10 ratio (as described above). Then put several drops of this mixture on your skin just below your cheekbones, rubbing it into the skin from beside your nose to the outer corners of your eyes near your temples. Be sure not to get this mixture in your eyes! Put another drop or two above each eyebrow—these are sinus points used for acupressure and the application of topical sinus medication.

Lie down with a hot, moist cloth over your face with your eyes closed (leave a little space for breathing through your nose). Cover with a dry towel for five to 10 minutes. You can do this several times a day. The essential oil vapor will reduce congestion and pain and will help you relax and rest.

For sore throat: Bitter orange. With its soothing citrus scent, bitter orange has antiseptic properties and promotes circulation of blood and lymph.

What to do: Mix bitter orange oil with a carrier oil in a 1:10 ratio (as described above), and then rub several drops into the lymph glands under your jaw and down your neck for relief of sore throat pain. Wrap a moist, hot towel around your neck, and then cover it with a dry towel. Leave in place for 15 minutes. Then gently stroke downward on your jaw and neck—this promotes lymph drainage. Repeat as often as desired throughout the day.

*To test whether you are sensitive or allergic to essential oils, put one drop of the diluted oil on the inside of your wrist and wait 24 hours. If you see a reaction, do not use the oil elsewhere.