Earlier this week news broke about the trial of a Calgary mother being charged with criminal negligence after failing to seek appropriate medical attention resulting in her son’s death. Her seven year-old was diagnosed postmortem as having a streptococcus infection that had moved into the central nervous system (meningitis), and the lungs (pneumonia). According to the news reports the child was given dandelion tea and oil of oregano before going into organ failure and dying.
My heart is heavy with this story of unnecessary loss of a child’s life. From all accounts it sounds like the woman was an unfit parent, and that there may have been drugs impairing her ability to parent her child. Clearly we don’t know all of the details so I don’t want to speculate on why she let her son go untreated for two weeks with a life-threatening illness. However, I do think it is valuable to draw some attention to holistically treating fevers, and clarify what oil of oregano actually is (hint: it’s not an essential oil).
Let’s start with oregano first…
Oil of Oregano
There’s a lot of confusion around this herbal extract and it is frequently confused as an essential oil. Oil of oregano is an herbal extraction, or an infused oil. To produce it you roughly chop fresh or dried oregano leaves and stems from the garden, add them to a mason jar, and cover with olive oil. The jar can then be put in a warm place like a warm water bath in the slow cooker, the top of the fridge near the vent, or the back of the stovetop, for a few days. For a longer infusion method you can place it in a dark, cool space for a few months. After your preferred extraction time you strain off the herb using a colander, muslin cloth, or nut milk bag. This oil is lovely to use in cooking (such an upgrade to pesto and tomato pasta dishes!), and in salve-making. Oregano plants do really well here in Central Texas where we have a similar climate to the Mediterranean, and it isn’t too fussy about the state of the soil.
Oregano essential oil is steam distilled from the fresh plant and contains only the volatile oils. It is very different from oil of oregano, and dosage is rather low because of the harsh phenol constituent carvacrol found in it. All three of the common oreganos are high in carvacrol, Origanum vulgare, Origanum onites, and Thymbra capitata. Carvacrol is also present in high amounts in Wild Marjoram, the Carvacrol chemotype Thymes, as well as Summer and Winter Savory.
Oregano essential oil is a skin irritant, sometimes called a “hot oil” because it is sooo irritating to the skin. Tisserand and Young (2014) recommend not using more than 1% of oregano essential oil on the skin, which would be 1 drop in a teaspoon of carrier oil. They contraindicate oregano during pregnancy and breastfeeding due to the potential embryotoxicity and the inhibition for blood clotting. This also would be a concern for folks before and after major surgery, on diabetic medications and anticoagulant medications, or those with peptic ulcers and hemophilia or other bleeding disorders.
There are some commercially available products on the market that appear to combine oil of oregano (oregano infused in olive oil) with oregano essential oil. I have yet to find a use for oregano essential oil in my practice, not in clinical aromatherapy, not in aromatic medicine, not in popular aromatherapy. But I do like the infused oil in culinary preparations and when I don’t mind the eau de ragu sauce smell I’ll use it in a chest balm or gardener’s hand salve.
Fevers, Children, and a Good Relationship with Your Family Doctor
There’s a lot of confusing information out there on the internet about what to do with a fever, especially with children. I like to turn to a few trusted sources who offer helpful, balanced information on this subject. One of those is herbalist, midwife, medical doctor extraordinaire, Aviva Romm from Massachusetts. Aviva offers some great advice in her 2014 blog post Natural Fever Treatment for Kids from a Mommy-MD. Loyola University Health System covers the same topic in That fever might be your child’s friend. If you’re a bit of a geek like me I think you’ll enjoy this rabbit hole on fevers from Science Based Medicine that might leave you interested in tracking temperatures during times of wellness to get a good baseline so you know when you actually do have a fever. 🙂
What is obvious to me about the sad loss of a child’s life is that the parent didn’t have any kind of relationship with a pediatrician or family doctor. According to the news articles I linked to above the child had never been to a doctor! If the mother had a trusted source of medical advice to turn to she could have made a quick phone call at any point during the child’s two week long illness to ask questions and would have been prompted to bring the child in for an office checkup. I advocate for my clients to have an established relationship with their family doctor -and you can find a provider whose values and treatment style fit your family’s needs. Maybe that means your primary care person is actually a nurse practitioner who spends ample time with you at each appointment and doesn’t brush off your questions. Maybe that person is an osteopath who offers soft tissue manipulation in addition to a prescription if it is appropriate for your wellness care needs.
I am deeply sorry for the mother’s loss, I know she will have to live with this for the rest of her life and that life may be greatly altered if she is convicted and serves a sentence in prison. I would like to see our community use this as an opportunity to be better educated about any home remedies we are using for ourselves or other family members. I’d love to hear from you, especially if you have some good resources to share on this subject! Or maybe you want to share that horrid time you burned yourself mouth to urethra with one of those combined oregano products on the market. Yowzers!!!