Honey: The New Buzz in Antibiotic Resistance

by Jenna Frawley

It’s no secret that the spread of antibiotic resistant bacteria is becoming a global health crisis. Hospitals and medical facilities are breeding grounds for multi-drug resistant pathogens such as methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus (MRSA). Patients admitted to these facilities with one illness are now more susceptible to such hospital-acquired infections, resulting in longer hospital stays, poorer recoveries, and costly medical bills. Researchers working to combat this problem have resorted to looking for new drugs and treatments in the unlikeliest of places. One such possibility might even be sitting in your pantry right now.  

Honey, a popular medicine in ancient civilizations, has made a recent comeback in scientific literature. It has proven effective both by itself and in conjunction with other antibiotics as a topical treatment for many skin infections, most notably MRSA. In fact, honey has proven so effective that Derma Sciences, a national pharmaceutical company, manufactures a medical grade honey called MediHoney and advertises it as a treatment for wounds and burns.

But what is the reason for honey’s antibiotic properties? Different types of honey of which there over 300 in the United States alone—have different antibiotic properties, although some properties such as high viscosity are consistent across all varieties. When used to treat open wounds, honey keeps the area moist and prevents bacteria from passing through it. Additionally, the high sugar concentration of honey creates a hypertonic environment around the cells causing water to rush out of the cell via osmosis in an attempt to maintain internal chemical balance.

The chemical composition and structure of honey is also believed to inhibit a bacterial cell process known as quorum sensing, a stimulus-response system vital to pathogenesis. The dense structure of honey blocks bacterial cells’ ability to communicate with one another via intercellular chemical messengers. When cells can’t communicate, they can’t aggregate in communities and create a biofilm, a sugar-and-protein-based extracellular layer that protects cells from antibiotics and other immune system responses.

Researchers hope to isolate the exact chemical compounds that impart antibacterial characteristics to honey in order to treat other illnesses. It is still unknown whether or not honey will prove useful beyond topical application. In the meantime, honey not only provides a new weapon against dangerous skin pathogens that frequent hospitals, but it also serves as a reminder that answers to complex medical issues can sometimes be staring at us from the breakfast table.