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Ask the Naturopathic Doctor

Fighting Infections

Learn how essential oils can help resolve antibiotic-resistant skin infections.

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Q: I have recurrent MRSA [methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus] skin infections. Are there any alternatives to antibiotics?

-W.J., Juneau, Alaska

A: MRSA is a superbug-very prevalent in hospitals, but also in the community-that has become resistant to all beta-lactam antibiotics. This class of antibiotics works by destroying the cell wall of the bacteria. The basic “bug” in question here, Staphylococcus aureus, is the most common bacterial species growing on human skin; it thrives in moist areas, such as the nostrils. Impetigo, a common childhood infection (which can be caused, for example, by chronically licking one’s lips), is a staph infection. Regular overgrowth of S. aureus can generally be cured with over-the-counter antibiotics such as triple-antibiotic creams, as well as the nondrug options listed below. MRSA, however, is resistant to many drugs.

Luckily, MRSA still seems vulnerable to many natural antibacterials. My favorites are the volatile oils oregano, thyme, eucalyptus, tea tree, and rosemary, as well as cinnamon, geranium, cloves, and peppermint.

The oils may be taken internally in very low doses (three to five drops in 32 ounces of water, sipped over the course of the day; shake the bottle well before each sip). Oils can also be applied over the lymphatic tissue closest to the infection, as well as directly onto the infection (as long as the skin is not broken). Volatile oils are very strong and will burn an open wound-avoid this additional trauma to the area. Dilute the oils with carrier oils, such as calendula, jojoba, almond, or grape seed before applying topically. Any good-quality oil, even olive oil, will work. Use no more than 135 drops of volatile oil to 1 ounce of carrier oil.
If your MRSA infection is on or around the face (nose, lips, ears), place three to five drops of the volatile oil that smells best to you along the angle of the jaw or above the tops of the collar bones, as well as directly on and around the infection; dilute the oil in 15 to 25 drops of carrier oil. You can apply every two hours. If the infection is on your lower body, apply the antibacterial oil to the inguinal nodes, near the surface in the crease between the base of the abdomen and the tops of the legs.

If there is not a specific site of infection, such as a wound or postoperative site, the oils can be applied anywhere on the body, as the blood will circulate the oils throughout the tissues. Never apply oils directly to mucous membranes.

Here is an antibacterial formula created by Pam Taylor, ND, of Moline, Ill. Place the following in 1 ounce carrier oil:

20 drops tea tree
4 drops cinnamon
20 drops geranium
20 drops oregano
20 drops patchouli
7 drops peppermint
20 drops thyme
4 drops clove
20 drops lavender

Aura Cacia and Original Swiss Aromatics make good essential oils. Essential oils taken internally should be from a certified food-grade product.

Another favorite antibacterial, especially for mucous membranes, is goldenseal. This works best for those with blood type A, but is OK for types B and AB as well. For blood type O, I use larch or non-echinacea herbal immune tonics, such as astragalus, Siberian ginseng, and ashwagandha. With all the herbal remedies mentioned, you can generally take twice the recommended “maintenance” dose advised on the label, for five to 10 days, or discuss dosage with a knowledgeable herbalist or naturopathic physician. Echinacea is also a good anti-infective (except for blood type O), but I tend to use echinacea more as an antiviral. Other effective herbal antibacterials, somewhat milder than the volatile oils, include calendula, fresh garlic, horseradish, myrrh, Oregon grape, and yarrow (especially good for bacterial vaginosis, such as gardnerella overgrowth).

For chronic MRSA infections, get a culture of your nasal passages. MRSA is often harbored in the nose.
Hand-washing is as important today as always. Use plain bar soap, and avoid antibacterial soaps containing triclosan-one of the many causes of superbugs. The other major cause of superbugs is the antibiotics fed to cattle, hogs, and chickens, which come right through the food chain to you. As much as 50 percent of antibiotics used in the U.S. annually are thought to go to livestock. Always choose drug-free meat, organic foods, and clean water.

You can e-mail health questions to Emily Kane (aka Dr. Em) at
Put “Ask the Naturopath” in the subject line.