Tea tree oil shows promise as an effective treatment for a number of micro-organisms commonly associated with otitis externa and otitis media, but its possible ototoxicity has not been previously assessed. The ototoxicity of tea tree oil was examined in the guinea pig by measuring the thresholds of the compound auditory nerve action potential (CAP) to tone bursts before and after instillation of the oil into the middle ear. After 30 min of instillation, 100% tea tree oil caused a partial CAP threshold elevation at 20 kHz. A lower concentration of oil [2% tea tree oil dissolved in saline using 0.5% detergent (Tween-80)] did not cause any significant lasting threshold change after middle ear instillation for the same period of time. The latter concentration of oil is greater than the minimum inhibitory concentration reported for most micro-organisms in the effective spectrum of the oil and this suggests that this concentration may be safe and effective provided only short exposures (about 30 min) are used. The results suggest that high concentrations of tea tree oil applied to the round window for a relatively short time are to some extent ototoxic to the high-frequency region of the cochlea. Hence further study is needed to establish whether tea tree oil can be used with safety in the treatment of external and middle ear infections.
Copyright 2000 S. Karger AG, Basel.