Honey for the Treatment of Infections
Dr. Molan, University of Waikato, New Zealand
An Ancient Medicine Rediscovered
Honey is one of the oldest medicines. Its use is recorded in Sumerian clay tablets estimated to be 4,000 years old, and in Egyptian papyri dated from 1900 to 1250 BC It is also mentioned in the Veda, the sacred scriptures of Hinduism, thought to be about 5,000 years old, and in the Holy Qu'ran and the Talmud. Hippocrates (460-357 BC) used many of the Egyptian prescriptions. He found that honey "cleans sores and ulcers of the lips, heals carbuncles and running sores." Celsus (circa 25 A.D.) used honey for many different purposes: as a laxative, as a cure for diarrhea and upset stomach, for coughs and throat maladies, to agglutinate wounds and for eye diseases.

Honey has continued to be used in medicine ever since, but little was known about how it worked. It was not until the late 19th century that bacteria were found to be the cause of infections. Although there are several reports in medical journals in the 1930's of honey being effective in clearing wounds of bacterial infection, it was not recognized in these reports that it had been established in laboratory work in 1919 that honey has antibacterial activity. It was not until the mid-1940's that more intensive laboratory studies were carried out, but by this time antibiotics were becoming available for the treatment of infections, and honey was displaced from use in medicine.

Despite the advent of antibiotics, honey has continued to be used in folk medicine, and it is from this pool of knowledge that the re-introduction of honey into modern medicine has come. There have been numerous reports in medical journals of this folk remedy being used as a last resort on infected wounds, burns and ulcers that were not responding to antibiotic treatment. The remedy was in all cases found to be remarkably effective. This effectiveness is being recognized in an increasing number of reports. In 1989, an editorial in the Journal of the Royal Society of Medicine expressed the opinion that "the time has now come for conventional medicine to lift the blinds off this 'traditional remedy' and to give it its due recognition."

Recent Research
Many researchers have reported that honey varies in the potency of its activity. Despite this, none of the reports in the medical journals mentions any selection of the honey used. At the University of Waikato we have investigated how much variation there is in the antibacterial activity of honey likely to be used medically. Commercial apiarists supplied 345 samples of honey from 26 different floral sources for the study. The samples of honey were tested against staphylococcus aureus, the most common wound-infecting species of bacteria. The activity of each sample was compared with that of a reference antiseptic, phenol (carbolic). It was found that the activity varied from a level that was the equivalent of 58% phenol to a level that was below the limit of detection (2% phenol). One third of the samples tested were of this low level of activity.
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