Antibacterial Effects of Honey
Medical Fact or Fiction?

by Julie McCarthy
M. Sc. Student,
University of Guelph, May 1995.

Since ancient times people have speculated about honey's curative properties. The ancient Greeks, Romans, Chinese and Egyptians used honey to heal wounds and cure disease of the gut (Zumla and Lulat, 1989). Until recently, there was little scientific evidence to support therapeutic uses of honey. Lately, however, many studies have shown that honey has valid medical use because of its antibacterial activity. This article focuses on the potential importance of honey in modern day medicine due to its antibacterial properties.

Treatment of Burn Wounds and Skin Ulcers with Honey

Subrahmanyam (1991) conducted a study comparing a conventional method of burn treatment (silver sulfadiazine) with topical applications of honey. Burn patients of a variety of ages were divided into two treatment groups. The burns of patients in Group 1 were cleaned with saline solution and pure, undiluted, unprocessed honey was applied daily. Burns of Group 2 (control) were cleaned and covered with gauze that was soaked in 5% silver sulfadiazine which was changed daily. Results showed that within 7 days 91% of the infected wounds treated with honey were free of infection, compared to less than 7% of the silver sulfadiazine treated burns. Within 15 days, 87% of the honey treated wounds were healed whereas only 10% of the control group wounds were healed. Patients treated with honey experienced less irritation, more relief of pain, and no allergic reactions or side effects.

Subrahmanyam (1991) suggests that honey is effective for treatment of burn wounds because: 1) It prevents infection because of its antibacterial or bacteriostatic properties (i.e., inhibits the growth of both Gram- negative and Gram-positive bacteria). 2) It provides a viscous barrier to fluid loss and wound invasion by bacteria thus preventing infection. 3) It contains enzymes which may aid the healing process by promoting tissue formation. 4) It absorbs edema fluid (pus) thereby cleaning the wound. 5) It reduces pain and irritation and eliminates offensive smell.

Efem (1988) showed that various types of wounds and skin ulcers which had not responded to conventional methods of treatment such as antibiotics and medicated dressings responded favorably to a topical honey treatment. Wounds and ulcer types treated with honey included: Fournier's gangrene, burn wounds topical ulcers, bed sores, and diabetic ulcers. After the wounds were cleaned with saline, honey and clean bandages were applied daily. Infected wounds that had not responded to conventional treatments were free of infection within 7 days of the first honey application. Following treatment with honey, dead tissue was quickly replaced with healthy granulation tissue. In some cases, diabetic ulcers were successfully treated with honey and skin grafts, thus preventing amputation. Apparently, the antibacterial properties of honey allow it to work on wounds and skin ulcers in the same manner it works on burns.

The antibacterial activity of honey is partially due to its osmotic effects (Molan, 1992a). Honey is a saturated or super saturated solution of sugars and is said to have osmotic properties (i.e., water-with drawing). Water molecules strongly react with the sugars in honey leaving little water available for micro-organisms. The bacteria that cause infection are unable to survive in honey because they become dehydrated. Molan (1992a) compared the antibacterial activity of natural honey to artificial honey solutions (i.e., super saturated solutions of sugars of the same proportion as those in honey). Results showed that these artificial honey solutions did not have the same degree of antibacterial activity as natural honey, indicating that while the removal of water from bacteria is important, other factors are operating to provide the observed antibacterial effects.

The presence of hydrogen peroxide generated by the enzymatic activity of glucose oxidase in dilute honey also contributes to its antibacterial activity (Molan, 1992a). As hydrogen peroxide decomposes, it generated highly reactive free radicals which react with and kill bacteria (Note: Prior to chemical identification of hydrogen peroxide, it was often referred to as inhibine in the literature).

Treatment of Infant Gastroenteritis and Stomach Ulcers Using Honey

A paper by Haffejee and Moosa (1985) studied the effects of orally or intravenously administering dilute honey for the treatment of gastroenteritis compared with a usual treatment of glucose solution (control). Gastroenteritis is acute diarrhea caused by human rotovirus (Tallett, 1977). This disease is highly contagious and mainly effects young children, but can also occur in adults. The disease is characterized by diarrhea accompanied with fever and vomiting at the onset. Gastroenteritis is a major health problem that has been found in all continents and all races. Haffejee and Moose (1985) found that the honey treatment shortened the duration of diarrhea in patients with bacterial gastroenteritis. Patients with bacterial gastroenteritis who were treated with honey had a mean recovery time of 58.00 hours compared with 93.13 hours for the control patients. Improved treatment of gastroenteritis with use of honey can be explained by its antibacterial properties.

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