Bacterial Infections

Bacteria are everywhere, and most of the time they're harmless (some are even beneficial to human health, such as the Lactobacillus, a.k.a. “friendly” bacteria, in yogurt). But whenever there's a break in the structural integrity of your skin — whether it's a burn, a superficial scrape, or a deep puncture — you're opening the door to bacteria. If enough of them get in to overpower your body's defenses, you'll have an infection.

Wounds

Although any wound is open to bacterial invasion, open wounds (ulcers), large or severe burns, and bites are the most likely to become infected. Signs of infection include acute pain (it hurts more than you think it should), pus, and swelling that extends past the immediate area and feels hot.

Many bacterial infections in humans can be traced to two kinds of bugs: Staphylococcus (staph) and Streptococcus (strep) bacteria. Staph infections typically involve the skin but can also affect the internal organs. Strep bacteria cause strep throat as well as several skin infections. Both are producing increasing numbers of drug-resistant strains.

Conventional treatment will depend on the severity of the infection. In many cases, you'll be given a prescription for oral antibiotics that are effective against the bacteria causing your infection. Oral antibiotics can contribute to the development of drug-resistant bacteria, and taking them long term can compromise your immunity.

Folliculitis

This inflammation of the hair follicles can occur anywhere there's hair. In most cases, the problem starts when the follicles are damaged by friction or abrasion (as in shaving), or blockage (wearing tight clothing), then invaded by Staphylococcus bacteria.

Conventional medicine typically treats folliculitis with antibacterial cleansers like triclosan (Dial Antibacterial Moisturizing Body Wash) or tri-clocarban (Safeguard Antibacterial Soap). These are serious chemicals — they're also used in industrial disinfectants — that have been linked to neurological and hormonal problems. You also may be given a prescription for an oral antibiotic (see above) or a topical antibiotic like mupirocin (Bactroban), which can cause burning, pain, and itching.

Other Skin Infections

Impetigo is a superficial skin infection caused by staph or strep bacteria. It produces small blisters or scabs that generally start on the face and may move to other parts of the body.

Cellulitis is an infection of the deep layers of the skin caused by bacteria — most often strep — that enter through a cut, burn, or other skin injury. Left untreated, it can spread to the lymph nodes and become life threatening. People who already have another type of infection or a chronic condition (like diabetes) that can impair circulation are most at risk of developing cellulitis.

Conventional Versus Herbal Solutions

Conventional medicine treats impetigo with prescription-strength topical antibiotics (see above); more serious cases might get a prescription for oral antibiotics. Cellulitis is treated with oral antibiotics (see above).

Many herbal remedies can be used alone or in conjunction with antibiotics to treat bacterial infections:

Barberry (Berberis vulgaris)

Barberry contains powerful antibacterial and anti-inflammatory chemicals that can inhibit bacteria from attaching to human cells. The same antibacterial chemicals are found in goldenseal (Hydrastis canadensis).

Cat's claw (Uncaria guianensis, U. tomentosa)

This traditional Peruvian remedy has proven antimicrobial effects-and can inhibit the activity of strep, staph, and other bacteria. It's also a proven anti-inflammatory and immunomodulator.

Gotu kola (Centella asiatica)

This herb is used in Ayurvedic medicine to foster all kinds of tissue repair. Recent research shows its ability to kick-start immune response, speed skin healing, and inhibit bacterial growth.

Saint John's wort (Hypericum perforatum)

Best known for its antidepressant capabilities, Saint John's wort is also

Witch hazel (Hamamelis virginiana)

Witch hazel bark is a classic treatment for itchy and inflamed skin (it's also astringent, so it helps dry up blisters). Recent research shows it can help halt staph infections (even the drug-resistant kind).

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