Natural Vs. Pharma: Can a Plant Kill Strep Bacteria?

Natural remedies are a great alternative to some medicine and may even work better in some instances. Menthol and eucalyptus has been a go-to for stuffiness and colds. But when it comes to pesky bacterial infections like strep throat, is natural better or are traditional pharmaceuticals?


Strep throat is a common bacterial infection caused by Streptococcus pyogenes bacteria. Which belongs to a group of bacteria called Group A beta hemolytic Streptococci (GAS). Globally, strep throat is responsible for approximately 600 million cases of sore throat infections every year.


The majority of these cases occur among school-aged children between 5-15 years old. It's estimated that every child is infected with strep throat every one to two years. Strep is highly contagious, and when combined with a crowded school and kids sharing their personal items, it can spread quickly. Studies have shown that the peak of strep throat infections occurs in late winter and early spring. Generally speaking, strep throat is a mild infection that can resolve on its own without treatment. But in some cases, it can lead to fatal complications such as Rheumatic heart fever and kidney damage (glomerulonephritis).

Treatment of Strep Throat

Antibiotics are recommended to shorten the period of illness and avoid life-threatening complications due to an untreated infection. According to guidelines, penicillin is the preferred antibiotic used to treat strep throat. In case of resistance or allergies to penicillin, macrolides such as erythromycin are a suitable option.


Even though penicillin is still effective against strep throat bacteria, there are rising concerns regarding antibiotic resistance and treatment failure due to the evolutionary mechanisms of Streptococcus pyogenes. Some bacteria are evolving to be resistant to antibiotics like penicillin. Additionally, the high costs of treatment are an issue of concern, which is why there is an urgent need to find alternative/complementary therapies to antibiotics. 

Plants and Herbs for Strep Throat

Since ancient times, we have relied on plant byproducts to heal and soothe. Humans have been using plants and herbs as natural remedies for centuries to treat illnesses due to their antibacterial and antimicrobial properties. Thanks to modern science, we’ve been able to extract the active compounds from certain plants and incorporate them into conventional chemical therapies. Essential oils made from plants and herbs has also been on the rise, and for good reason; they can kill certain strep bacteria. But should they replace antibiotics?


In recent years, a group of plant-derived active compounds called phytochemicals showed promising anti-Streptococcal activity against strep throat bacteria. Recently, a study showed that these agents can kill Streptococcus pyogenes by many mechanisms, including preventing the Streptococcus bacteria from adhering to the throat and altering their chemical stability. 

Licorice root, purple coneflower flower, purple coneflower stem, sage leaves and slippery elm inner bark were the most effective, with minimum inhibitory concentrations (MIC) and minimum bactericidal concentrations. Other medicinal herbs and plants that have antibacterial agents include:


  • garlic
  • tea tree 
  • sage
  • thyme
  • ginger
  • echinacea


A Canadian study tested 20 different plant-derived active molecules from different plants against Streptococcus pyogenes. They found that of these 20 active agents, 1,2-naphthoquinone, and 5-hydroxy-1,4-naphthoquinone inhibit the growth of strep throat bacteria. Although this study has been conducted in a lab, these compounds showed clinical potential. Meaning that they could be added to existing medications to aid pain relief and decrease the length of strep throat infection.

The Bottom Line: Plants Vs. Antibiotics

Despite this low efficacy compared to traditional antibiotics, certain plants and herbs can kill bacteria and Streptococcus pyogenes. However, their benefit is concentration dependent, meaning that larger concentrations of these plants are needed for them to be effective. Antibiotics are still the number one choice for strep. 


In the future, these plants and others might be a good source of natural antimicrobial agents that can be used as an alternative to antibiotics. However, more research is needed, especially in areas of the appropriate dosage of these herbs, the best methods of administration, adequate duration for their use, and studies against the currently available antibiotics. Additionally, the benefits of these plants for relieving other symptoms of strep throat and preventing its complications are possible areas for future research.


In the meantime, sticking with tried-and-true medications like penicillin will be the best way to fight the strep but can be used in conjunction with traditional strep medication. It’s exciting to look toward the future of medicine as we continue to meld nature and science to heal and treat illness. Here's to science!