Bacterial infections of the skin are notoriously hard to treat. They can lead to fatal complications. As more and more strains of bacteria become more and more resistant to more and more antibiotics, doctors turn to honey as an alternative that works.
You would not think that a simple blister could kill someone.However, for tens of thousands of diabetics, tiny cuts and scratches that become infected can lead to the loss of feet and legs, days or weeks in the hospital, and sometimes death from septic shock.
Recently, a friend of mine who is diabetic had his own experience with a diabetic foot infection. His car had broken down, so he started walking everywhere. He developed a blister on the bottom of his big toe. He knew that he had to keep it clean and dry, so he washed the blister several times a day, changed his socks several times a day, and kept on the lookout for signs of infection. He did not, however, change his shoes. He wore the same shoes all the time.
The shoes harbored a bacterium, laboratory tests would later reveal, known as Morganella. It took three weeks, but the bacteria that had entered the blister when it popped began to tunnel under his skin. They spread from his big toe up to his knee. One evening he noticed an odd tingling sensation on the back of his leg, and the next morning his entire leg was red and swollen. He had a fever. His heart was pounding even though he was sick in bed. When he finally got the emergency room, a day later, he was judged to be near death. The doctors put him on an IV drip of a potent antibiotic called Zosen, and packed the now-gaping wound on his big toe with medicinal honey. The improvement was almost miraculous.
What Is Medicinal Honey?
The use of honey for treating skin infections is nothing new. Ancient Egyptians packed mummies with honey to prevent decay. Doctors and folk healers for centuries have applied honey to the skin to treat acne, cellulitis, folliculitis, and infected wounds.
"Medicinal" honey is simply honey that has been found to have unusual antibacterial potency that can be collected in large quantities and that gets the same results every time.
In the Western world, medicinal honey is usually a variety called manuka. This honey is collected from the hives of bees in New Zealand that feed exclusively on the flowers of a single plant, a bushy tree related to the tea tree, Leptospermum scoparium. The infection-fighting power of manuka honey is probably connected to its unusually high concentration of a chemical called methylglyoxal. All honey contains some methylglyoxal, but manuka honey contains two to three times more. It is possible that this chemical, plus the ability of honey to "smother" bacteria that require oxygen, explain most of the power of medicinal honey to accelerate healing in skin infections.
Do We Really Know Medicinal Honey Works?
Medicinal honey does not have the infection-fighting power of, say, an intravenous drip with vancomycin. It's never the only treatment that should be used in fighting even a simple skin infection. Nonetheless, scientists have a good idea of exactly how honey, any kind of honey, helps to heal the skin.