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Antibacterial Essential Oils


A pair of orthopaedic surgeons report that two essential oils--eucalyptus and tea-tree oil--are surprisingly effective at treating methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus (MRSA) infections.

Despite the positive findings, though, others say it is too soon to consider such oils an alternative to antibiotics.

The researchers presented their findings here at the 69th Annual Meeting of the American Academy of Orthopaedic Surgeons.

Dr. Eugene Sherry of the University of Sydney in Australia said that, applied to the skin of infected wounds an antibacterial wash derived from Eucalyptus radiata and Melaleuca alternifolia--better known as eucalyptus and tea-tree oil--can work when modern antibiotics fail.

Essential oils like these are mostly used in aromatherapy, Sherry noted.

He said that he used the combination "once a day for several months" in a series of 25 patients with MRSA.

"Twenty-two of the infections resolved completely," Sherry reported. In 19 patients, the infections resolved without the use of antibiotics, while three patients required antibiotic treatment, he said.

Before Sherry applied the solution, he removed dead skin and infected tissue from the wound, a process called debridement. Sixteen of the infections involved the bone and three had spread to muscle.

In addition, 10 of the patients were diabetic, which "makes healing of wounds very difficult," Sherry said in an interview with Reuters Health.

Two years ago, Sherry attended a presentation about the antibacterial properties of essential oils and decided to research the subject. He said that he discovered a wealth of 50-year-old research concerning essential oils, but said "all that research was abandoned when modern science discovered antibiotics."

When Sherry decided to initiate a trial of eucalyptus and tea-tree oil in MRSA patients, he discovered that Dr. Patrick H. Warnke, an orthopedic surgeon at the University of Kiel in Germany, was pursuing a parallel study. So the two combined their work to produce the 25-patient MRSA study.

Warnke said they are now studying an aerosolized version of the compound in laboratory studies of tuberculosis. When they sprayed the compound on tuberculosis cultures "we wiped out TB, killed it, in 40 minutes. No antibiotic does that," Warnke told Reuters Health.

Both doctors said that they have received no funding from the makers of the essential oils, nor do they have financial interests in companies producing the substances.

Dr. Harris Gellman, professor of medicine at the University of Miami and a spokesman for the American Academy of Orthopaedic Surgeons, said the new study is "interesting and exciting," but the treatment is nowhere near ready for prime time.

Gellman pointed out that although the results are positive, the authors have not provided enough information. For example, he said, the information about the site of the infection, duration before the essential oils treatment, and comparison to a "control" group are all missing from the study.

The bottom line, Gellman said, is that "we don't know if these patients would have recovered irrespective of treatment."

But even with those caveats, Gellman said he is pleased that orthopaedic surgeons are "finally going back" to evaluate traditional therapies for infection.

"Most medicinals come from plants," he noted, "so the natural progression is to look to more plants for more treatments."

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