There are natural substances that have antibacterial properties, and many people look to use these as substitutes for prescription antibiotics.
But when can these “natural” antibiotics be safely used to ward off infection and when are they not a good idea?
Learn about natural antibiotics, their risks, and when to use prescribed antibiotics.
What is An All-Natural Antibiotic?
But before that, antibiotic substances existed in natural form.
Now that conventional antibiotic drug resistance is a major concern, it makes sense to explore the possibilities and benefits of using natural antimicrobial agents for certain types of bacterial infections.
Research has not completely verified the effectiveness or mechanisms for many natural antibacterials.
However, some of them have been proven effective in certain scenarios.
If you’re considering trying them, it’s important to communicate with your doctor about symptoms that could relate to bacterial infections.
In some cases, no natural cures are available and when bacterial infections are left untreated, they can quickly spread and become more complicated to treat.
Natural antibiotic treatments may come with fewer side effects, but that’s only beneficial if it also addresses the infection.
Antibiotic drugs work in a few key ways:
- By inhibiting bacterial replication
- By damaging components of the bacteria, like cell walls, that allow them to protect themselves
- By destroying the bacteria
Natural antibiotics may work in some similar ways, but it’s important to understand whether they’ll be effective for your particular infection before deciding to use them as treatment.
The Best Natural Antibiotics
While significant research has been done on antibiotic drugs, the concerns over multi-drug resistance have led scientists to revisit natural compounds with antimicrobial properties.
These include many compounds from plant-based substances, known as phytochemicals.
These can include:
- Essential oils
Here we will explore the nine most common natural antibiotic substances, what they may be effective for, and when they might be useful.
Honey was first noted for its medicinal properties around 400 B.C.
It has been used as a topical cream to heal wounds, treat infections, and soothe burns.
While you might not smear some honey on a skin infection today, some research does actually prove that using honey in surgical wound dressings can promote better wound healing and reduce the appearance of scars.
Honey is both sticky and moist, and this unique combination might be what helps to coat wounds, protecting them from dirt and contaminants while fostering the right kind of environment to allow for tissue repair.
The properties in honey that produce healing benefits include:
- Hydrogen peroxide, which can prevent bacterial growth
- Low pH levels, which can prevent bacterial replication that could cause infection
Honey is a broad-spectrum antibacterial, able to prevent growth of at least 60 different strains, including MRSA
It’s also not only beneficial topically.
It can be taken by the spoonful, too, for soothing sore throats.
Please note, however, that children under age 1 should never be given honey because it contains toxins that can make them ill with botulism, a life-threatening illness.
There have been no studies showing that honey can kill bacteria or treat infections when consumed, it has only been studied in preventing or treating wound infections when applied to the skin.
It is best to use sterile, medical honey for this purpose.
Research has identified properties in garlic that can be both antibacterial and help prevent infections.
Garlic concentrate can destroy bacteria in test tubes, and is even effective against MRSA and C. albicans, two pathogens that are becoming increasingly resistant to conventional pharmaceutical treatments.
However, these benefits have only been shown in the lab, not in the human body.
Garlic can be consumed in many forms, including raw, roasted, or marinated in olive oil to create garlic concentrate.
It may also be topically applied to blemishes or wounds, although you should use caution when doing this.
If the garlic you’re using has other contaminants on the surface, you could introduce new bacteria.
Topical wound dressing, especially of open wounds, should be done by medical professionals using sterile wound care products only.
Garlic is safe to ingest for most people and is rarely allergenic.
However, consuming large quantities of garlic might lead to gastrointestinal upset and can cause a person to emit a garlic-scented odor.
If you take blood thinners, you should be aware that higher garlic intake can have an interaction since it may also thin the blood.
Even though garlic is potentially effective against the bacteria that cause some UTIs, this has only been demonstrated in lab samples, it has not been shown to be an effective treatment in human studies, so you should not self-medicate a UTI unless you have consulted with a health care professional.
Untreated urinary tract infections can lead to severe kidney infections that may require hospitalization.
Some people use garlic oil in the ears or vaginal area to try to treat infections.
This has not been proven to be helpful in scientific studies and can cause worsening irritation and infection.
Oregano Essential Oil
Oregano, a plant in the same family as mint, may have medicinal properties when it is extracted into a super concentrated essential oil form.
Essential oil is not the same thing as oil of oregano, which is not as concentrated.
Oregano essential oil has benefits primarily because of carvacrol, the active phytonutrient.
It may be helpful for the following:
- Sinus infections
- Skin fungal infections
Oregano essential oil should not be taken internally.
Instead, for topical use, a few drops should be paired with a carrier oil (like almond oil, olive oil, or coconut oil) and applied to the affected area.
For sinus infections or internal health benefits, oregano oil should be diffused into the air and breathed in.
None of these benefits have been proven in high-quality human studies, so oregano oil use should never replace the treatment recommended by your doctor.
It can also be paired with white vinegar, distilled water, and lemon juice to create a natural homemade disinfecting cleaner.
This is particularly effective if you or someone in your household is sensitive to the smell of bleach or other disinfectants.
Thyme Essential Oil
Thyme has a distinct smell that often sets it apart from natural household cleaning products.
It pops up in them so commonly because it has the ability to kill bacteria, including antibiotic-resistant types.
Thyme may be effective against Staphylococcus and E. coli bacteria, as well as other common strains on home surfaces
Like oregano essential oil, thyme essential oil should never be used internally and has not been proven to treat any infections when consumed, inhaled, or applied.
Taking it for internal use could result in serious illness or tissue injury of the esophagus or lining of the gastrointestinal tract.
Eugenol, the active ingredient that makes thyme oil antibacterial, can cause liver toxicity and other serious damage, even from a small ingested amount.
If you are going to use thyme essential oil topically, it needs to be heavily diluted with a carrier oil.
Without diluting it, thyme essential oil can irritate the skin or lead to inflammation.
Thyme essential oil should not be used by some people.
You should also keep thyme oil and all essential oils away from children.
Myrrh has a warm, aromatic scent.
It is used for many purposes, but one of the lesser known purposes is that is can kill pathogenic bacteria, such as:
- E. coli
- C. albicans
- P. aeruginosa
- S. aureus (MRSA)
- K. pneumoniae
The essential oil is able to kill off greater than 99.9% of these bacteria types in lab studies.
Clinical uses of myrrh extract include being added to formulations like mouthwash, topical creams, and hexane extracts.
Ingesting myrrh essential oils may cause diarrhea and other digestive problems, and myrrh has not been proven to treat any infections in humans.
Never ingest essential oils.
If you use myrrh topically, be sure to pair with a carrier oil to avoid irritation or a rash.
A little goes a long way.
Overusing myrrh can result in skin sensitivity or other organ problems.
Echinacea is a plant that grows naturally in North America, cultivated for hundreds of years by indigenous people for its healing properties.
Echinacea can be used both topically and internally.
It is sold as a dietary herbal supplement, marketed primarily for immune support.
While echinacea may be supportive for certain kinds of viral infections, research also shows that it can be effective against S. pyogenes, the bacteria that can cause strep throat and toxic shock syndrome in lab testing only.
It may also be effective for promoting topical wound healing, improving general immunity, and addressing bacterial respiratory infections.
However studies have not shown any benefit in people suffering from either viral or bacterial infections, despite the marketing.
Echinacea comes in many forms: supplements, tinctures, extracts, and combination formulations.
Be sure to ask your doctor for a trusted recommendation since supplement companies are not regulated by the FDA and there is no high-quality scientific evidence for the use of echinacea to treat any medical condition or infection.
Some herbal supplements are higher quality than others.
You should not take echinacea if you have autoimmune disorders or a severe infection.
Another popular herb, goldenseal is often consumed as a tea or in capsule form for promoting better immunity.
It may be effective in bacterial infections that cause diarrhea or respiratory problems, as well as in urinary tract infections.
It may also be effective against MRSA and other resistant bacterial strains.
However, like the other supplements, there is no high-quality scientific evidence showing that this can treat any viral or bacterial illness in people.
Goldenseal can interact with prescription drugs and other supplements, so check with your doctor before you start taking this supplement.
It should not be consumed by pregnant women, those who are breastfeeding, or small children.
The bright orange seasoning associated with many types of spiced dishes, turmeric has a potent active ingredient: curcumin.
Found to be anti-inflammatory and supportive of a balanced immune system, curcumin is now also shown to be effective against gram-positive and gram-negative bacteria in lab samples.
Curcumin may even be effective against the bacteria that causes MRSA as well as E. coli.
However, again, this has been shown only in lab samples- turmeric has not been demonstrated to cure or treat any viral or bacterial infection in human studies, and should not be substituted for the treatment plan suggested by your doctor or medical provider.
Risks of Natural Antibiotics
Since they have been poorly studied and their production is not regulated, there are many risks associated with using natural antibiotics.
If you are using supplements, it’s important to understand that the FDA does not regulate the supplements or natural products industry for safety or effectiveness.
They do not allow drug, cure, or treatment claims to be made and will enforce this if companies inappropriately advertise their products.
It’s important to understand that supplement brands may be able to set their own regulations.
Their doses are not exact, since they are not standardized like the pharmaceutical industry.
Consumer Lab is an independent third-party company that tests supplements and other natural products, and they frequently find that products contain less or more of the ingredients they claim to have.
Sometimes there are even inactive ingredients present that are not disclosed on the label, which can be especially problematic for anyone who has allergies.
Natural antibiotics can still interact with other drugs, medications, supplements, or foods.
They still need to be approached with caution and may still be risky for people with certain health conditions.
Even if you want to treat something with a natural antimicrobial agent, you still need to work with your doctor to avoid interactions and to ensure that the remedy you are using is effective for your infection.
There have been no scientific studies showing that any of the supplements mentioned in this article can actually treat or prevent infection in humans so none of these should ever be used in place of the antibiotic or treatment plan suggested by your doctor.
When to Use Prescribed Antibiotics
Your doctor will not prescribe antibiotics for an infection unless they believe it is absolutely necessary.
While they may have been more freely prescribed in years past, with the awareness of the global health risks of antibiotic resistance, doctors are managing antibacterial prescriptions carefully.
When given, antibiotics are needed to prevent bacterial infection from proliferating and worsening illness in the body, as well as to prevent the spread of the infection to others.
While some conditions might respond to natural antibiotics, others will not and prolonging the time to treatment with an antibiotic may result in serious complications.
If your doctor recommends an antibiotic, it’s important to take it as prescribed.
Do not start a medication and then stop it in favor of taking a natural alternative.
This can lead to complications and promote the development of bacterial resistance.
When To See A Doctor
Even if you want to use natural remedies, you should always check in with your doctor if you have any signs of infection that do not resolve within a few days.
They can help you determine whether a natural antibiotic will be effective and safe, as well as if it may have any interactions with any medications you are already taking.
Frequently Asked Questions
K Health articles are all written and reviewed by MDs, PhDs, NPs, or PharmDs and are for informational purposes only. This information does not constitute and should not be relied on for professional medical advice. Always talk to your doctor about the risks and benefits of any treatment.
K Health has strict sourcing guidelines and relies on peer-reviewed studies, academic research institutions, and medical associations. We avoid using tertiary references.
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