For nearly a century, antibiotics have been used to control bacteria that can make us sick. But in recent decades, bacteria have evolved to be resistant to some or all known antibiotics. These are called “superbugs,” with MRSA (methicillin-resistant Staphlococcus aureus) being the best known. Certain strains of tuberculosis, pneumonia, gonorrhea and diarrheal diseases also belong in this category. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) estimates that drug-resistant bacteria affect 2 million people per year.1

Inappropriate use of antibiotics is one factor that has led to the rise of drug-resistant bacteria. Penicillin and similar drugs are often prescribed to people with colds and flus, which are caused by viruses (vs. bacteria). Antibiotics are effective against diseases caused by bacteria, and therefore ineffective against viral illnesses. Antibiotics are similarly ineffective against chronic sinus infections, which are frequently caused by fungi.

While scientists are developing new drugs, they have also studied botanical medicines for their antibiotic properties and validated what herbalists have long known: bacteria do not develop resistance to plant-derived remedies. Four of the major bacteria responsible for respiratory illness, including those that are antibiotic-resistant, were studied and shown to be susceptible to the effects of essential oils. The common strains of bacteria include Haemophilus influenzae, Streptococcus pneumonia, Streptococcus pyogenes and Staphlococcus aureus. Over 500 studies of essential oils were published between 1987 and 2001, and one review called the antimicrobial properties of these compounds “exceptionally good.”2

Thyme, cinnamon, lemongrass, Perilla and peppermint oils are particularly effective at inhibiting bacterial growth.3 Eucalyptus, oregano, rosemary and salvia are other oils which act directly on the respiratory tract, affect the coughing reflex, or increase airflow in the nasal passages.4

To limit the spread of resistant bacteria, avoid taking antibiotics for minor illnesses like colds, flus and ear infections. Instead try using essential oils to kill microbes in your environment. These concentrated plant compounds are readily available and easy to use in the following ways:

  • Put 5 drops in a hot bath or in boiling water on the stove for steam inhalation to clear the nasal passages.
  • Make a compress by soaking a washcloth in water with several drops of oil and apply to neck or forehead for headache relief.
  • Use a few drops in your humidifier or aromatherapy diffuser for a good night’s sleep.
  • Add some to your natural cleaning products to disinfect surfaces.

Dr. Needle is a naturopathic doctor at Optimal Health Center in Palm Desert and can be reached at (760) 568.2598.

References: 1) NIH News in Health. “Stop the Spread of Superbugs.” February, 2014; 2) Forsch Komplementmed. “Essential oils of aromatic plants with antibacterial, antifungal, antiviral, and cytotoxic properties—an overview.” April, 2009. 16(2):79-90; 3) Journal of Infectious Chemotherapy. “Screening of the antibacterial effects of a variety of essential oils on respiratory tract pathogens.” December, 2001; 7(4):251-4; 4) Harefuah. “The treatment of respiratory ailments with essential oils of some aromatic medicinal plants.” October, 2008. 147(10):783-8.

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