Honey is well known for its anti-bacterial properties, but is there sufficient evidence to support the use of honey for burns?
Indeed, there are 2 studies presenting quality evidence that honey dressings can actually heal partial thickness
burns more quickly than conventional treatments. The evidence is important for credibility. If hospitals want to use honey for burns, medical staff need reassurance that it will help the patient as quickly as possible.
Certainly, honey has been used in ancient medicine, including as a treatment for wounds.
However, in ancient times there were no attempts made to prove efficacy in the scientific, regulated way as is the requirement today.
However, this does not mean that honey is ineffective! Indeed, many people rate honey very highly for a number of conditions from coughs to eczema (although currently there is only a small amount of evidence to support use in eczema). The anti-bacterial properties of honey are well documented and researched. It has been proven to be effective against MRSA. Many people rate 'Medical Grade Honey' very highly.
In modern times there is a well accepted process for establishing the efficacy and safety of medical treatments.
This means, if we want to use honey for burns in a clinical setting, it must be proven scientifically through the use of quality clinical trials. Those rules apply to conventional pharmaceutical medicines, as well as 'natural product based' (of which, there are many being tested in clinical settings, on a regular basis).
This requirement is a good thing - remember, regulations evolved many years ago, out of the need to avoid harm to the public, and put a stop to quacks on street corners selling dirt as a treatment for warts etc.
These days, some people may think this is just game playing by big pharma, but personally I agree that actually - products must be tested first!
(Though I appreciate, big pharmaceutical companies can more easily afford the trials).
It's also true that honey is sometimes combined with other ingredients that are well regarded by the public, such as Aloe Vera.
Nevertheless, if rules are allowed to be relaxed for one treatment, they can be relaxed for another. Hospitals and clinicians must demonstrate care - not negligence. To treat somebody with a substance not properly tested could result in harm and law suits.
It’s sometimes difficult to work out whether individual clinical studies are properly set up, but a recent Cochrane review by Jull et al 2015, looked at 26 different trials involving more than 3000 patients that examined the use of honey in wound healing, of which 11 trials looking at the use of honey for burns.
It is not clear from the review, which trials used which type of honey (for example, manuka honey, medical grade honey etc).
Partial thickness burns affect the top two layers of skin, the epidermis and the hypodermis, and are often called ‘second degree burns’. These burns are more serious than first degree burns, because a deeper layer of skin is damaged and they are more painful and more prone to infection.
The reviewers state that 2 of the studies, show what they
describe as ‘high quality evidence’ that honey dressings heal partial thickness
burns more quickly than conventional treatments.
These studies specifically looking at honey in burns, involve 992 patients – so they are not small and insignificant studies!). Conventional treatments with which honey was compared, included:
However, were there any negative side-effects or consequences of using honey for burns?
It was not clear whether or not there are fewer infections if honey dressings are used for burns instead of conventional dressings.
Jull et al examined ten trials (involving over 800 patients!) that compared the use of honey in burns with use of silver sulfadiazine (SSD) in burns, and found:
So whilst the results look very interesting, the issue of infection and risk following the use of honey for burns would really need to be looked at more vigorously before it could be used on a wider basis. Robust trials are a key requirement of any advanced medical care system.
Indeed, the authors concluded:
Competent health bodies, such as the UK NHS, point out that honey used in clinical settings, is medical grade honey. This means that, for example, it has been through a process to ensure it is not contaminated, and is presented in an appropriate format.
Do remember, there have been a number of scandals around contaminated honey. For example, more manuka honey is sold than is actually produced! There have been scandals of 'cheap' honey being smuggled from China into the West - containing anti-biotics and even lead.
In addition, take a look at your burn. Should you seek medical assistance (especially for burns on a child or elderly person, or if there are any other relevant medical issues). If you have an allergy to bee products including honey, obviously you should not use it, even as a topical treatment.
Then again, personally, I'm fit and healthy, and I would be prepared to try honey for burns if the burn was very minor, and the product used appeared to be suitable, and I'd be happy to have it in my first aid box - but that's me.
Jull et al – Cochrane review: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/25742878