Does Tea Tree Oil Treat Impetigo?

Impetigo is the most common bacterial skin infection in children 2 to 5 years of age, but adults can also be affected by this highly contagious condition. According to scientists at the University of Virginia School of Medicine in Charlottesville, impetigo is usually caused by Staphylococcus aureus, although certain strains of Streptococcus can also be involved. Tea tree oil is a widely used herbal remedy for skin problems, but check with your doctor to see if it is appropriate for impetigo.

A bottle of oil on a towel. (Image: kazmulka/iStock/Getty Images)

History

Tea tree, or Melaleuca alternifolia, has been used as an antiseptic for centuries by indigenous people living in Australia, where the plant grows. Certified nutritional consultant Phyllis Balch, author of "Herbal Prescription for Healing," reports that the leaves of melaleuca became a valued remedy among Europeans settling the Australian continent when they discovered the herb's anti-fungal and antibacterial properties. The oil distilled from tea tree's leaves has been used to treat a variety of disorders, including athlete's foot, ringworm, yeast infections, insect bites, boils, dandruff, vaginal infections and fungal infections in nails. However, scientific evidence to support such use is generally lacking.

Impetigo

Staphylococcus aureus, the most common cause of impetigo, is a normal bacterial inhabitant of your skin. Your immune system usually keeps this and other micro-organisms in check, but any break in your skin, even one that you cannot see, can admit bacteria into its superficial layers, where they can multiply. Impetigo usually appears as an irregular area of redness with multiple small, fluid-filled blisters and honey-colored crusting. Less frequently, it manifests as one or several large blisters without any surrounding redness. Impetigo can readily spread from one area to another on your body or to another individual. Topical or oral antibiotics are usually used to treat impetigo, but tea tree oil might prove beneficial in some cases.

Evidence

According to a February 2003 review in "Journal of Antimicrobial Chemotherapy," tea tree ointment demonstrated "positive results" against impetigo in one clinical trial, and tea tree oil was equivalent to "conventional treatments" for treating acne and methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus, or MRSA, in two other trials. In addition, a study published in the October 2006 issue of "Journal of Medical Microbiology" demonstrated that tea tree oil eradicated Staphylococcus aureus in tissue cultures after one hour of exposure.

Considerations

Tea tree oil has a long history of use as an antiseptic, and it has demonstrated activity against Staphylococcus aureus, the most common cause of impetigo, in scientific studies. Although it is generally well-tolerated as a topical agent, allergic reactions and local irritation are occasionally associated with the use of tea tree oil. Tea tree oil should not be taken internally, and it should not be applied to large areas of broken skin. Impetigo can resemble other skin infections, some of which can be dangerous, so consult your doctor before using tea tree oil for any skin condition.

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