DEAR DR. ROACH: I have a relative who sells one of the popular brands of essential oil products and related equipment. She sends out many social network postings about the benefits of these products, including sharing postings from others who sell the products.
I do not purchase these for several reasons. I am sensitive to many air-borne scents and have a scent-free home, but my primary concern is that she seems to be practicing medicine by claiming what I believe to be unproven health benefits. These are very costly and, at a minimum, harm is done by persuading people to spend a great deal of money for products that may not do what they are claimed to do. I am also concerned that families with young children seem to be using these products — my relative has even sent some to her children’s school for use in the classroom. Can you please comment on possible benefits/harm from these products? — J.R.
ANSWER: Essential oils from plants have been used to scent the air for millennia. There are certainly many claims about purported health benefits, but there is little evidence to support their use for those purposes. Health claims for aromatherapy should be taken with skepticism. One exception is that several reviews have found that some aromatherapies can reduce anxiety levels, and possibly some symptoms of depression.
As I frequently note, however, the placebo effect is powerful, and if you expect that a treatment, such as aromatherapy, will help your symptoms, it very well may. As such, I have no objection to people who want to use them for mild symptoms. I do object when people forgo potentially effective treatment for serious illness. Your point about cost is a real issue, but essential oils do not have to be very expensive.
Harm from aromatherapy is generally limited to allergic or non-allergic irritation of the nose and skin. Essential oils are not to be taken internally, and even topical use can lead to problems, as they can be absorbed into the body directly through the skin.
DEAR DR. ROACH: Why are there two names for every drug? In a recent article, for example, you mention fluoxetine (Prozac) and bupropion (Wellbutrin). Clearly the name in parenthesis is the common name people use. Why does the other name exist, and why is it used at all?
This adds unnecessary complexity and confusion. For example, a nurse asked me about Efudex, and I didn’t know what she was referring to, as the label on the medication I had reads “fluorouracil.” — C.P.
ANSWER: Every drug has at least three names: a chemical name, a generic name and a brand name. The chemical names are so complex that nobody (but chemists) uses them. I prefer using generic names, since they are the same regardless of country, and generic names often give a clue to the type of medication. Generic names are lowercase.
Brand names (capitalized) are the ones most often known (drug companies often try to find easy-to-remember brand names and hard-to-remember generic names), but not always. In the example you gave, Efudex is one brand name (Adrucil and Carac are others), and fluorouracil (or 5-fluorouracil, often abbreviated 5-FU) is the generic name.