Treating a simple cut or scratch isn’t always so simple anymore, a fact that is becoming clearer with every new report of drug-resistant skin bacteria turning once-minor wounds into threats to life or limb.
That’s why I’m intrigued by a new study showing what medical-grade manuka honey—a type of honey that’s harvested from manuka trees in Australia and New Zealand and then sterilized—can do in our battle against out-of-control skin infections. It isn’t just that this honey kills microbes—other honeys can do that, too. What’s new is that lead researcher Sarah E. Maddocks, PhD, an associate lecturer in microbiology at Cardiff Metropolitan University in Wales, discovered that manuka honey also has the potential to detach bacteria from wounds, which makes wounds easier to treat with topical medications.
What makes manuka honey so special? For one thing, manuka contains much higher concentrations of methylglyoxal, compared with other honeys, which makes it a superior microbe fighter. The main type of antimicrobial ingredient in other types of honey is hydrogen peroxide, Dr. Maddocks said. She analyzed medical-grade manuka honey, specifically, because it’s irradiated and therefore sterilized. Honeys that are sold for eating are not sterilized, she explained, and therefore might contain microorganisms that can be transferred to wounds and cause infection. (But don’t worry—you can still buy the medical grade variety. More on that later.)
In lab petri dishes, Dr. Maddocks and her team treated samples of Streptococcus pyogenes—a skin bacterium often found in slow-to-heal surgical infections—with 20% to 25% concentrations of medical-grade manuka honey. Within two hours, the honey produced big results—85% of the bacteria were destroyed.
The most interesting part of the study was that the honey also stopped the bacteria from binding to proteins that often are found in wounds. Normally when bacteria stick to these proteins, they form a barrier to healing when the wound is treated with topical drugs, such as antimicrobial creams.
So with this one-two punch, the honey appears to have the power to minimize the likelihood of infection and make the wound easier to treat. If it starts being used on a wide scale, medical-grade manuka might do even more than save patients unnecessary suffering—it could save buckets of money as well. Dr. Maddocks estimated that in the developed world, between 2% and 4% of all health-care expenses go toward treating nonhealing wounds. Her study was published this past January in Microbiology.
Though more research needs to be done to confirm its effectiveness on people’s actual wounds in clinical trials, not just on bacteria in petri dishes, Dr. Maddocks said that some hospitals all over the world already use medical-grade manuka honey, mainly to treat serious, chronic wounds. But if you want to use it on a minor wound yourself at home, it’s a good natural option, according to Daily Health News contributing editor Richard O’Brien, MD, an attending emergency physician at Moses Taylor Hospital in Scranton, Pennsylvania.
Manuka honey tends to be costly since it needs to be imported great distances. It’s available in some pharmacies, but regular manuka honey found in health or food stores usually isn’t medical-grade. And you can’t sterilize regular manuka honey yourself. The best place to find it is online—just be sure that the label states that it’s “medical-grade” or “sterilized.”
To use medical-grade manuka honey on a minor wound, first clean the wound with mild soap and water to lower the bacterial count and remove any debris, said Dr. O’Brien. Then apply a thin film over only the wound (not the surrounding area) and cover it carefully with a nonstick bandage, such as Telfa, so the pad itself won’t stick to the honey, he added. Twice a day clean the wound and reapply the honey and bandage, Dr. O’Brien said, and if the bandage needs more frequent changing due to drainage or pain, see a doctor to make sure the wound is not infected.
Sources: Sarah E. Maddocks, PhD, associate lecturer, microbiology, Cardiff Metropolitan University, Cardiff, Wales. Richard O’Brien, MD, an attending emergency physician at Moses Taylor Hospital in Scranton, Pennsylvania.