Not another urinary tract infection! Anyone who’s ever gotten a urinary tract infection (UTI) — and that’s most women — know how irritating and perilous it can be. Some of us are also prone to recurrent UTIs, where infections keep coming.
Fortunately, there are steps you can take to keep UTIs at bay.
One of them is aromatherapy, or using high-quality essential oils to aid your body and mind. If you’re prone to UTIs or are actively battling an infection, it can be helpful to use oils in a supportive way, says Heidi Chesla, a medical aromatherapy specialist in and around Baltimore and an instructor to physicians at the University of Maryland School of Medicine.
Symptoms of UTIs
The all-too-common condition of a UTI happens when bacteria typically found around the anus migrates into the sterile urethra (the tube where pee flows out) or bladder and starts to multiply.
Symptoms include a burning sensation (especially while urinating), the need to pee frequently, the urge to go even if you’ve just emptied your bladder, cloudy or bloody urine, and pain or pressure in your lower abdomen.
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See a Doctor for Needed Drugs to Treat Infection
UTIs are potentially dangerous, because if the bacteria migrate further upwards, they can enter your kidneys and cause a serious infection there. For this reason, Chesla recommends that when you have a UTI you see your physician to get it treated.
Treatment for UTIs typically involve a short course of oral antibiotics, such as trimethoprim and sulfamethoxazole (Bactrim, Septra).
Your doctor can also instruct you how to best prevent recurrent UTIs. For example, people should stay well hydrated, urinate before and after sex, and women should always wipe from front to back (and even use different sheets of toilet paper for each side).
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Fact or Myth: UTIs Can Be Treated With Essential Oils
Essential oils can be used to both support healing and make you feel better when you have a UTI. “You don’t want to use them in place of a drug,” Chesla says. But essential oils are uniquely helpful because chemical constituents within the aromatic oils create physiological responses in the body, and because “there’s a direct connection with the sense of smell and the limbic system in the brain, where your emotions arise,” she says.
Essential oils have not been scientifically studied for UTIs. However, some small studies have shown they can help battle other types of bacterial infections. For example, a review published in December 2019 in Complementary Therapies in Medicine on topical aromatherapy for the skin infection MRSA found significantly lower level of new MRSA emergence compared to routine care.
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How Is Aromatherapy Used?
Aromatherapy uses quality essential oils that are cold-pressed or steam-distilled from plants to support your mind and your body, according to the National Cancer Institute. The oils can come from a plant’s leaves, bark, or peel. Different plants have different oils that have varying effects on the mind and the body.
Essential oils can be inhaled, massaged into the body, rubbed onto the skin, or put in a bath. If you do rub them directly onto your skin, you’ll want to dilute them in a carrier oil, such as fractionated coconut oil (Chesla’s favorite), almond oil, or avocado oil.
Using essential oils if you are prone to UTIs can support your body and help you feel better, Chesla says.
Is Aromatherapy Safe?
Using essential oils, ideally in conjunction with your physician, is very safe, Chesla says. Sometimes, an allergic reaction or skin irritation or rash can occur, especially if you put the oil directly on your skin. This is why experts advise that you dilute the oils with a carrier oil before massaging them into your skin.
You also don't want to swallow essential oils, because this increases the chances of an allergic or other negative reaction.
The safety of essential oils, not to mention their effectiveness, holds only when you use high-quality, pure and natural products, she says. “Most of what’s on the market as essential oil actually have synthetic ingredients, some of which can be irritating. People need to be aware of that and stay away from these,” Chesla cautions.
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Since essential oils are not considered to be drugs by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA), the products are not regulated by the FDA. Therefore, it is crucial that you buy oils from a manufacturer who is concerned about quality.
It’s up to each person to take care about where they get their oils from. This might mean paying a little more, since cheap oils are unlikely to be of high enough quality to give you the results you want, Chesla says.
Related: Vegetarian Diet Linked to Lowered Risk of Urinary Tract Infection
Look for Companies That Test Essential Oil Quality
The best companies hire an independent third party to test each batch of oil as it is made. The tests they perform are called gas chromatography–mass spectrometry (GC-MS) reports. They show how much of each bioactive compound is present in the oil.
Also, because oils can degrade over time, good manufacturers also print an expiration date on the label, Chesla says.
The results of these tests should be made available to you, either on the company’s website or sent to you if you phone and ask. Chesla recommends that you take the report to your doctor, who should recognize the chemical components. That way if there are any concerns with interactions with other medicines you might be taking, your doctor will be informed.
The Best Essential Oil Blends to Prevent UTIs
If you’re wondering how to use essential oils for UTIs, the best approach is to apply them to the areas of your body most affected, Chesla says.
People prone to recurrent UTIs can try to stave them off by applying a blend of oils to the skin of their lower abdomen and lower back, she says. You’ll want to mix the oils into a carrier oil before you do this.
The blend Chesla recommends are a few drops, in equal parts, of the essential oils cypress (Cupressus sempervirens), juniper berry (Juniperus communis), and cedarwood (Juniperus virginiana). The cypress and juniper berry help to move fluid through your system, while the cedarwood helps kill germs. Rub a small amount of the blend onto your lower abdomen and lower back twice each day, in the morning when you wake up and two hours before bed. (You don’t want fluid moving through you — making you need to pee — too close to bedtime.)
Aromatherapy When You’re Battling an Active UTI
If you have an active infection and are working with your physician to combat it, aromatherapy can assist these medical efforts, Chesla says.
You can continue using the same blend as you use for prevention, but add a few extra drops of cedarwood. Tea tree oil (Melaleuca) can also battle bacteria, so you can substitute this for the cedarwood if you desire. You’ll need to source this oil extremely carefully, though, because so much of what is sold as tea tree oil is actually synthetic, Chesla says.
Chesla also recommends supporting your painful abdomen by massing it with a blend of equal parts clary sage (Salvia sclarea), geranium (Pelargonium graveolens), and lavender (Lavandula angustifolia), again mixed into a carrier oil. Clary sage can have anti-spasmodic effects, while the others are said to induce calm.
Lowering Stress Can Help With UTIs
Stress plays a role in so many of our bodily conditions, so it’s not surprising it may be involved with recurrent UTIs. A review published in February 2017 in Current Opinion in Urology points to this potential link between emotional stress and bladder symptom.
Here, too, aromatherapy may help, because soothing scents can calm the stress response down, Clesla says. Good oils for de-stressing include lavender, sandalwood, and vetiver, alone or in combination.
Find an Aromatherapy Practitioner
You can locate a certified aromatherapist near you on the websites of two national organizations, the National Association for Holistic Aromatherapy and the Alliance of International Aromatherapists.
Or you can buy oils directly from an online company or from a store that sells quality brands. Be sure to buy only from companies that carefully source and test their products.