My friend gets painful cysts under her breasts from time to time, mainly during the hotter weather. Her doctor treated her with an antibiotic, but the cysts still appear occasionally. Do you know of any herbs or supplements she should be taking?-- G. (via e-mail)
Rountree responds: My guess is that your friend suffers from a condition called hydradenitis suppurativa. It has some similarities to a severe form of acne. For reasons not fully understood, the sweat glands in the skin become plugged up, forming cysts that become infected with bacteria. This typically occurs in areas with high concentrations of glands, such as the armpits, under the breasts, and in the groin. If left untreated, they can progress into deep abscesses that require surgical drainage. Unfortunately, the condition can be chronic: The cysts may go away after a course of antibiotics, only to recur months later. Recurrences are especially common in the heat of the summer, when sweating is more profuse.
The best way to prevent recurrences is to keep the area dry and disinfect it with a topical antiseptic gel containing 5 percent tea tree oil (Melaleuca alternifolia) applied twice daily. At the first sign of recurrence, try applying a few drops of essential oil of thyme (Thymus vulgaris) to the area several times a day. Use caution with this oil, especially if you have sensitive skin, because it can burn the skin. In addition, I would recommend taking an oral preparation of oregano oil (Origanum vulgare), which—like thyme—is an excellent natural antibiotic that is readily available in health-food stores. The strength may vary depending upon the brand, so follow the dose recommendations on the label. She could take this for several weeks at a time for both prevention and treatment.
Keville responds: Treatment with antibiotics suggests that your friend has a bacterial infection. The connection with hot weather and the location is a clue that it involves sweat glands. From those two leads, my recommendation is topical treatment with an antiseptic essential oil such as tea tree or lavender—or use the two together. I would also add either cypress or myrtle because both of these antiseptic essential oils also reduce sweating and treat acne and related problems.
It may take some experimentation to choose the best one, so she could begin by using equal amounts of each oil. These oils should not be used on the skin undiluted. Either purchase an aromatherapy ointment or cream or make a diluted oil by adding 30 drops of essential oil to 1 ounce of vegetable oil. Dab on the cysts a couple of times a day. If she tries this, but then feels the need for a stronger antiseptic, she could try thyme and oregano essential oils. In a homemade formula, use only 15 drops of either one per ounce of vegetable oil. Better yet, she can purchase the less-toxic version of thyme, called linalol, which is specifically used to treat skin conditions.
It’s always a good idea to fight infection from the inside as well as the outside. By building up her immune system, she will not only help halt the current infection, but help prevent its recurrence. The popular immune herb echinacea (Echinacea spp.) is a good start, but look for an immune formula that includes several herbs. Some that are especially useful for skin infections are barberry (Berberis vulgaris), pau d’arco (Tabebuia spp.), and wild indigo (Baptisia tinctoria). Skin problems often involve the liver, and burdock (Arctium lappa) is one of the best liver herbs for skin eruptions.
The information offered in “Q & A” is not intended to be a substitute for advice from your health-care provider.
In every issue of Herbs for Health, professionals from a variety of health-care fields answer your questions about using medicinal herbs. In this issue, Kathi Keville and Robert Rountree answer your questions.
Kathi Keville is director of the American Herb Association (www.jps.net/ahaherb) and the author of eleven herb and aromatherapy books including Herbs for Health and Healing (Rodale, 1996). She teaches seminars throughout the United States.
Robert Rountree, M.D., is a physician in private practice in Boulder, Colorado, where he practices integrative medicine. He is coauthor of Smart Medicine for a Healthier Child (Avery, 1994) and Immunotics (Putnam, 2000) and is an Herb Research Foundation advisory board member.