Tea Tree Oil (Melaleuca alternifolia)
Tea Tree oil is perhaps the first essential oil I ever used to treat a patient. Many years ago now, I had a Cocker Spaniel patient that had suffered ear infections her whole life. Chronic ear infections in Cockers were a well-known and expected thing at the time, so common in fact that the condition was referred to as “Cocker ear”. This patient was not different than any other Cocker, but it was the first time I had been on a case that had been seen and treated by many other veterinarians resulting in a ear infection that came back as completely resistant to all of the antibiotics and anti-fungal medications when a sample of the ear infection was sent to the lab. What the heck was I supposed to do? Never in my veterinary education had I been advised on how to handle an infection of which none of the medications on my shelf could effectively treat. As is often then case, the pickle of a situation this dog put me in forced me to be open-minded and to look for alternatives. The owners of this dog were a super cute couple well into there 80s who would do anything to help their little dog. However, if it were possible for me to help their little dog, while also helping with the atrocious smell coming out of her ears, they would be extra grateful. So, down the path of essential oils I went. I found some encouraging research in the medical journals and a bit of supporting evidence in several older textbooks. I decided to try a treatment of 1:10 diluted Tea Tree oil in almond oil and ask to owners to put 3-5 drops in the ear twice a day. A week later, the owners came back to the clinic and told me I had to come out to the car. I was confused; this little geriatric dog had never had trouble coming into the clinic before. We went out to the car and the dog was jumping back and forth between the front seat and the back seat wagging her tail. I had always assumed she was just a quite reserved sort of dog, but realized she had just been so miserable with her ear infections she didn’t want to play. The owners were so happy. They didn’t mind the scent of the tea tree oil; since it was such an improvement from the chronic ear infection smell and their only concern was that they weren’t sure what they were going to do to control their new high-energy dog.
If I had seen that little dog as a patient today, I would have look to combine the tea tree oil ear therapy with allergy testing and immunotherapy as I now recognize the ear infections were just a symptom and not the real disease, however, as a first experience with essential oils used in medicine, I was pleasantly surprised with the success. Further research into Tea Tree oil has shown that it is effective at treating many bacterial infections and several, but not all fungal infections1. There is also research that shows that we must be cautious about it’s use as some patients have an allergic contact reaction2. In the higher concentrated doses patients can even have weakness, incoordination and muscle tremors. We now select our patients carefully when we choose to use Tea Tree oil and we always monitor for adverse signs, but we are excited to have tools to help our patients, especially when we have exhausted all of the pharmacological options.
Tong MM and others: Tea tree oil in the treatment of tinea pedis, Australasian J Dermatol 33(3):145, 1992.
Knight TE, Hausen BM: Melaleuca oil (tea tree oil) dermatitis, J Am Acad Dermatol 30:423, 1994