Honey Heals: The Sweet Side of Wound Care

Mar 7, 2016 / Emergency/Critical Care / Cats / Dogs / Small Mammals

[Maureen McMichael in the ER at Illinois]

Honey fights microbes in several ways

The use of honey as a healing agent dates to ancient times. In the 4th century BC, the Greek philosopher Aristotle mentioned honey as being “good as a salve for sore eyes and wounds.”

Today, veterinarians use honey and sugar to help heal wounds. Dr. Maureen McMichael, an emergency and critical care veterinarian at the University of Illinois Veterinary Teaching Hospital in Urbana, uses these agents frequently in her patients.

“We keep sugar and a big jar of honey in the ER since we deal with many wounds that can benefit from them,” explains Dr. McMichael.

How Honey Fights Bugs

Honey’s major contribution to wound healing is its antimicrobial properties.

“When there is an open wound in a patient, we always worry about infection. Bacteria can easily multiply in the damaged tissue. Honey has antibacterial properties that allow it to clear wound infection by killing the harmful bacteria within the wound bed,” says Dr. McMichael.

Honey fights microbes in several ways.

“Honey has a high osmolarity, it is acidic, and it also creates hydrogen peroxide, which destroys bacteria,” says Dr. McMichael.

Osmolarity refers to the concentration of particles in a liquid solution. A solution that has high osmolarity will draw moisture from surrounding cells or tissue. Honey, with its high sugar content, has a higher osmolarity than do bacteria. This means that when bacteria encounter the viscous honey, they essentially shrivel up as the water inside them gets drawn out by the sugar.

Honey has a low pH, and bacteria cannot function in an acidic environment. It also makes hydrogen peroxide, which disrupts the chemical structure of bacteria.

More Ways Honey Heals

In addition to fighting bacteria, honey also provides a barrier that prevents bacteria from coming into contact with the wound.

“The honey essentially creates a protective layer when we apply it. It keeps the wound moist and the viscosity and antimicrobial properties prevent contamination from reaching the tissue,” says Dr. McMichael.

Honey has yet another function in wound management: it can speeds the healing process of the tissue.

“Honey can attract macrophages, a type of white blood cell important for normal healing of tissue,” says Dr. McMichael. “Honey’s high osmolarity can also decrease edema, or swelling, in the surrounding tissue, just as it pulls the water from bacteria.”

Macrophages arrive on the scene of injured tissue and engulf and remove any dead tissue, debris, and foreign microorganisms they encounter so that the tissue can heal.

Sugar Works on Wounds Too

Sugar functions in a very similar way to honey in wound healing. Sugar has the advantage of being much cheaper than honey, which helps keep the cost of care down in cases that need the treatment for an extended period.

“Sugar can be especially helpful in degloving injuries, burn wounds, pressure sores, and surgical wounds,” explains Dr. McMichael. “It decreases edema at the site, has antibacterial properties, and accelerates wound healing.”

A degloving injury is one that involves an extensive loss of skin. These often are slow to heal because the body has to gradually regrow its natural covering. It is important to keep the exposed tissue moist and free of bacteria during this process.

The ways in which honey and sugar are applied to wounds are very similar.

“We use honey or sugar in combination with frequent wound cleaning and bandage changes to give the wound the best environment for healing,” says Dr. McMichael.

With careful cleaning and bandaging, along with continued evaluation from the veterinary care team, our pets’ wounds can find pretty sweet healing when these natural substances are used.

If you have any questions about wound care, please see your local veterinarian.

By Melissa Giese