10 Ways That Doctors Treated Infections Before Antibiotics

Various kinds of honey are displayed at a honey and beekeeping products fair in Bucharest, Romania April 4, 2014. Bee venom is used to combat multiple sclerosis, pollen for indigestion, and honey to heal wounds. DANIEL MIHAILESCU/AFP/Getty Images

Honey, a plant nectar that is modified by the honeybee (Apis mellifera), has long been prized not just as a food but also as a medicine. The ancient Egyptians mentioned it at least 500 times in their medical literature, and used it in more than 900 of their remedies for various ailments. When Egyptian soldiers were wounded in battle by swords or other weapons, doctors usually applied honey to their wounds to promote healing and prevent infections [source: Gabriel]. The Assyrians, Chinese, Greeks and Romans similarly relied upon the product [source: Dente].

While using the sweet stuff for wound care might sound foolish, modern scientists have discovered that the ancients actually were on to something. Experiments show that honey actually has such powerful antimicrobial abilities that it can kill wound bacteria in less than two days on average, and in some cases as quickly as 10 hours after application — performance that rivals modern antibiotics. Honey draws water from bacterial cells, causing them to die without reproducing, and also contains glucose oxidase, an enzyme secreted by bees that is a powerful natural disinfectant and a mild antibiotic [source: Gabriel].

A recent German study found honey so effective in preventing infections among pediatric cancer patients that the study's author recommended that doctors consider using it on difficult-to-heal wounds [source: Dente].