Feature Archive

Sweet Solution

Can honey help cure infections?

By Charles Downey
WebMD Feature

After decades of turning up their noses at this ancient wound dressing, modern doctors are turning sweet on honey.

March 13, 2000 (Big Bear City, Calif.) Peter Molan, Ph.D., likes to tell the story of the 20-year-old wound. Infected with antibiotic-resistant bacteria, an abscess oozed in an English woman's armpit long after it had been drained. Nothing seemed to help, and the pain prevented her from working.

Then in August of 1999, she read about the remarkable wound-healing properties of honey. She convinced doctors to apply some to the dressing to her arm, and a month later the wound healed. Now she's back at work.

Novel as this treatment sounds, it would have inspired yawns among doctors in ancient Egypt, according to May Berenbaum, Ph.D., a University of Illinois entomologist. "Honey has been used for centuries to treat a wide range of medical problems like wounds, burns, cataracts, skin ulcers and scrapes," she says. "And now various researchers worldwide are also studying -- and finding -- strong antimicrobial properties in some honeys."

Honey fell from favor as a wound dressing when antibiotic dressings were developed during World War II. But the new research -- and the rise of antibiotic-resistant bacteria -- are putting this old-time folk remedy into the contemporary medicine chest.

Last year, the Australian Therapeutic Goods Administration -- the equivalent of the U.S. Food and Drug Administration -- approved honey as a medicine. A company in Australia this year began marketing medical honey as a wound dressing in pharmacies there. It's available in the United States through the Internet.

Honey helps wounds in several ways, says Molan. Its thickness provides a protective barrier. The hydrogen peroxide it contains is released slowly, killing germs in the wound. Some as-yet-unknown ingredients reduce inflammation, while others, perhaps amino acids and vitamin C, speed the growth of healthy tissue. Honey even makes wounds smell better, possibly because when bacteria in wounds eat honey's sugars, they give off sweeter-smelling gases.

Dozens of studies, in animals and humans, have documented such benefits. One of the most convincing reports, published in the 1998 issue of the journal Burns, tells how researchers from the Dr. V. M. Medical College in Maharashtra, India, compared honey with silver sulfadiazine, the standard treatment for superficial burns.

The researchers first smeared honey on gauze and used it to dress the burns of 52 patients. Another 52 patients got the same treatment but with silver sulfadiazine in place of the honey.

In the 52 patients treated with honey, 87% healed within 15 days, compared with 10% of those treated with silver sulfadiazine. The honey-treated patients also experienced less pain, leaking of wound fluid, and scarring.

Molan, a biochemist at the University of Waikato in New Zealand, and other researchers have found special bacteria-killing properties in honey made from the nectar of the tea tree (Leptospermum). In laboratory experiments, reported in the November 1992 Journal of Applied Bacteriology, Molan and his colleagues found that it was particularly effective in slaying staphylococcus aureus.

This so-called "Golden Staph" -- which infested the English woman's 20-year-old wound -- sometimes survives the most potent antibiotics, killing its victims. "Manuka honey has worked in very desperate cases where nothing else has worked," says Molan.

Based on the research of Molan and others, an Australian company is now marketing Manuka honey under the name Medihoney. To make it, beekeepers set their hives close to tea trees so the bees will gather their nectar.

Studies so far have found no side effects other than an occasional slight burning sensation when the honey is applied. Though honey sometimes contains the spores of bacteria that cause botulism, Molan says there have been no reported cases of this bacteria or anything else in honey infecting a wound.

Experts do caution that infants should not eat honey because of the botulism risk. "But it's still OK to use honey on children's (and infants') burns or scrapes," says Molan.

Molan also believes it is safe to use ordinary supermarket honey on such minor wounds. And it's a lot cheaper than antibiotic ointments. But since ingredients vary depending on the nectar from which the honey is made, Medihoney offers the advantage of laboratory testing.

It's one medicine that doesn't need a spoonful of sugar to help it go down.

Charles Downey is a journalist, magazine writer, and content provider who frequently writes about medicine and early childhood development for the New York Times Syndicate. He has also written for Reader's Digest, Playboy, McCall's, Woman's Day, Boys' Life, and many other publications on four continents.

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