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The Use of Honey in Wound Care Through The Ages

The Use of Honey in Wound Care Through The Ages

Since the dawn of time, way before the advent of medical devices such as Medihoney dressings, man has sought to increase his knowledge of his body. Ancient man will have discovered for himself that some wounds heal by themselves, and they soon learned that mud casts could help to set broken bones.

Hunter-gatherers were very quick to learn how substances around them were able to aid quicker healing. They also learned that hygiene was a very important factor in healing wounds.

Stone Age rock paintings show that prehistoric man used to hunt for honey between 8 and 10 thousand years ago. There is evidence to show that honey was stored in earthenware pots 2500 BC in southern England.

Although it is hard to know precisely when honey became more than a food source, the use of honey in wound care can be traced back as far as ancient Egypt, Greece and Sumer.

Ancient Egyptian hieroglyphics of honey bee farming
Ancient Egyptian hieroglyphics of honey bee farming

Egyptian hieroglyphs reveal the importance of the honey bee, as well as the cultivation of hives for more than 4000 years, not only as a sweetener, but also for medicinal purposes.

A Sumerian clay tablet reveals a prescription using river dust, water, honey and oil. Honey been acclaimed in Chinese literature from 2000 BC as being of medicinal value, and parts of Asia corroborate these beliefs as well.

The Ebers Papyrus, written around 1500 BC details the use of honey as a topical application for wounds, abscesses, sores, burns and skin conditions. The honey served as an antibiotic barrier to prevent infection.

Egyptians believed that closing wounds prevented possession. The Smith Papyrus leaves us in no doubt about the use of honey in surgical situations. One of the case studies highlighted an eyebrow wound which was lacerated to the bone:

“…After you have stitched it, you should bind fresh meat upon it the first day. If you find the stitching of the wound is loose, draw it together and treat it with grease and honey every day until the patient recovers.”

The Greeks were the first to differentiate between types of wounds; Galen of Pergamum was a Greek surgeon who served Roman gladiators who realised that keeping the site of a wound moisturized was essential to close wounds.

Writings from the Indus and Ganges regions from 1000 BC advise:

“Let one take honey… to beautify his appearance, develop his brain faculty and strengthen his body.”

There are several references to the use of honey in the Bible, as well as the Koran which states that God inspired bees to eat from all fruits to produce liquids of different colors in which there are cures for man.

Whether you believe in God or not, it appears that people of some learning were involved in the writing and compilation of these books which are sacred to millions of people worldwide.

Hippocrates thought of amongst doctors as the “father of modern medicine” and responsible for the Hippocratic Oath, extolled the virtues of honey:

“… cleans sores and ulcers, softens hard ulcers of the lips, heals carbuncles and running sores.”

He refers to honey and vinegar as a cure for pain, and honey and water as a cure for fever-induced thirst.

Pliny XXI wrote that honey was good for afflictions of the jaw, the throat, quinsy, complaints of the mouth, pneumonia, pleurisy and snakebites. He also notes that some honeys had an unpleasant effect when taken internally, but that when mixed with aloes were good for treating bruises.

After the Roman Empire pulled out of the United Kingdom around 400 AD, the Dark Age of medicine began. Hypothesis places the lack of writing on the subject at this time on the church and its stifling influence.

The Leech Book of Bald written around 1000 AD recommends honey as an eye salve and also as a treatment for dirty wounds, amputations and scab removal and a hitherto unknown surgical treatise from 1446 details a description of ulcer care, using not honey but beeswax and propolis!

In 1623, the Rev. Charles Butler wrote The Feminine Monarchie, which details the production and extraction of honey and its many uses. John Hill, MD in 1759 wrote a book on the topic of honey called, “The virtues of honey in preventing many of the worse disorders; particularly the gravel, asthmas, coughs, hoarseness and a tough morning phlegm.”

The use of honey in medicine fell out of favor during the 20th Century as many believed that infections had been eradicated by the use of antibiotics. With new super bugs and antibiotic-resistant bacteria coming to the fore, it might just be that the humble bee holds the answer to all those problems which sees millions of patients attending their doctor’s surgery every year.

Nowadays, contemporary research proofs honey to be a valuable and even indispensable medicine. A tangible example are Medihoney dressings.

Medihoney dressings are a unique line of wound dressings containing Manuka (Active Leptospermum) honey from New Zealand. They possess unique qualities that are backed by science which make them ideal for various types of wound and skin care.

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