Essential oils – a role in the fight against mrsa?
Essential oils - a role in the fight against MRSA?
Aromatherapy - the therapeutic use of essential oils (highly concentrated natural
plant products) - has been used traditionally to help combat many disorders, ranging
from mild skin complaints (e.g. insect bites, mild burns) to more complex conditions
such hypertension as stress. Evidence for the efficacy of essential oils in these
conditions has, however, tended to be largely anecdotal, but medical research is now
beginning to show that some essential oils may indeed have properties that could be
useful medically. Recent studies suggest that one area in which essential oils could
possibly have a role is in the fight against MRSA (methicillin-resistantStaphylococcus aureus (S. aureus) is a bacterium that can be found as part of the
normal flora of bacteria on some peoples' skin and in their noses, where it seems to
cause no major problems. However, if it gets inside the body, for instance under the
skin or into the lungs, it can cause infections. Such infections are usually treated
using antibiotics. MRSA, however, is a type of S. aureus that has become resistant to
antibiotics, and can therefore give rise to infections that are much harder to treat.
MRSA appears to be spread mainly through direct, skin-to-skin contact, largely by
healthcare workers failing to clean their hands effectively before and after contact
with an MRSA-positive patient and/or the contaminated environment. Therefore, one
of the priorities for preventing the spread of the organism is improved hygiene. One
study has shown that something as simple as hand-washing with an alcohol-based
disinfectant among carers can effectively reduce the spread of MRSA.1
Those infected with MRSA can also take hygiene precautions to reduce their risk of
spreading the infection, such as daily baths or showers with an antiseptic body wash,
use of a disinfectant dusting powder after bathing and drying, and washing hair twice
weekly with an antiseptic shampoo. As MRSA can live in the nose, nasal ointments
containing the antibiotic, mupirocin, are also available. However, some strains of
MRSA now appear to have developed resistance to this agent.
Despite improvements in hygiene, however, MRSA continues to pose a threat to
patients in hospital and in the community (particularly those who are already ill, the
elderly and those in long-term care), and new ways are constantly being sought to
A number of recent studies appear to suggest that certain essential oils may be
effective in preventing the spread of the organism. In a recent report, researchers at
the University of Manchester found that the use of three essential oils killed MRSA
rapidly and effectively in the laboratory.2 The oils were also effective against other
infectious agents commonly found in hospitals, including E. coli (Escherichia coli).
The researchers suggest that the oils could be blended into soaps, handwashes and
shampoos, which could be used in hospital hygiene regimens to prevent the spread
of such infections. Funding for further research is now being sought.
Although the essential oils identified in this study2 have not yet been named, other
research has been published which identifies a number of essential oils that may be
Tea tree essential oil, in particular, appears a promising candidate, either alone or in
combination with other essential oils. Two controlled studies have shown that use of
tea tree oil in nasal ointments, bodywashes and creams was as effective as routine
care in the elimination of MRSA.3,4 In another study, combinations of patchouli, tea
tree, geranium, lavender essential oils and grapefruit seed extract were found to be
effective against MRSA,5 and the same group of researchers have also developed a
blend of essential oils, which includes tea tree oil, encased in a shell of dead yeast
cells, which attacks and kills MRSA. Clinical trials of this new treatment, which can be
included in wound dressings, are about to start on 40 burns patients who have been
Lavender is another essential oil that has been shown to have efficacy against
MRSA.7 Activity was also shown against another bacterium that is resistant to
antibiotics - vancomycin-resistant Enterococcus faecium.7
Bacterial resistance to antibiotics is a growing medical problem, fuelled by years of
overuse and misuse of these agents by healthcare providers. Alternative
interventions with proven efficacy that would enable the use of antibiotics to be
reduced can only be regarded positively. These studies suggesting a role for
essential oils in the fight against MRSA are still under investigation, but results to
date are promising. Further developments are eagerly awaited.
For more information on essential oils, visit www.aromatherapy-stress-relief.co.uk
1. Pittet D et al. Effectiveness of a hospital-wide programme to improve compliance
with hand hygiene. Infection Control Programme. Lancet 2000;356:1307-12.
4. Dryden MS et al. A randomized, controlled trial of tea tree topical preparations
versus a standard topical regimen for the clearance of MRSA colonization. J Hospital
5. Edwards-Jones V et al. The effect of essential oils on methicillin-resistant
Staphylococcus aureus using a dressing model. Burns 2004;30:772-7.
7. Nelson RR. In-vitro activities of five plant essential oils against methicillin-resistant
Staphylococcus aureus and vancomycin-resistant Enterococcus faecium. J
For more information on essential oils, visit:
Dr Gillian Hale is co-founder of Aromatherapy-stress-relief.com, a home based
UK business providing Aromatherapy Stress Relief Gifts.
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