Healing Honey ~ what’s all the buzzzz about?

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12 Dec Healing Honey ~ what’s all the buzzzz about?

honey-potBeing an equine vet tech for 10 years brought me a fair share of jaw-dropping wounds, and even more jaw-dropping horse industry ideas on how to treat them!  It seems, when it comes to wounds, we just HAVE to put something on them.  It’s a bit like those ‘Do Not Touch’ signs – my hubby absolutely CANNOT walk past one of these without doing the exact opposite of what he’s told!   

Unfortunately, many of the heavily marketed ‘miracle’ wound concoctions on the market only serve to get in the way of the healing process (remember, wounds really do want to heal all on their own!).  Several products can be detrimental, some severely, and you can easily end up with a bigger mess than you originally started with.   Here in Australia, it appears that honey is slapped on anything that’s been afflicted by at least one layer of epithelial removal.

To be honest, I’d never even heard of honey being used in treating wounds until a short while before I landed in the lucky country.  Apparently, I’ve been living under a bale of hay because it’s been around since the ancient Egyptians.   

As you may know, I’m a bit of an eye-roller when it comes to the ‘quick-fix, one-size-fits-all, all-natural, miracle’ solutions, especially when it means you may be getting duped, and your pony pals are suffering as a result.   I didn’t earn my Research Roberts title without some serious one-on-one time with the scientific archives, so I decided it was time to trot on over and investigate this honey-boo-boo trend a bit more.

Turns out, there has been a fair bit of work published on the extent of honey’s properties in wound management.  Studies of the sweet stuff in human & animal medicine have demonstrated some beneficial wound healing properties. However, the design of a number of these studies has been criticized, and the clinical evidence to support the use of honey in superficial wounds and burns is under par.  In short, the overall impact of honey as a topical wound healing aid is unclear. 

It is accepted, however, that when it comes to wounds, some honey types have antibacterial effects and osmotic properties.  In addition, they may also help to deodorize and debride, and have pro-inflammatory and antioxidant activity.  There has been a growing perception that Manuka honey, produced exclusively by bees in New Zealand from the Manuka tree, has the best medicinal properties.  However, more recent research by the University of Glasgow found Manuka was not the only variety that was beneficial. 

In this study, Carnwath and colleagues investigated 29 different honeys, sourced from commercial medical grade honeys, grocery store honeys, and honeys from local beekeepers.  Firstly, they tested the each honey product to see if it was free from contamination and therefore suitable to be put on a wound.  Secondly, those that were deemed ‘uncontaminated’ were tested for their ability to inhibit growth of pathogens that were collected from horse wounds. 

Of the 29 honeys tested, bacteria and fungi were recovered from 18 of them (YUK!)  Ten different types of bacteria were collected from equine wounds.  Of the uncontaminated honeys, eight were effective against all ten of the wound isolates.  Interestingly, the medical grade honeys were not always the most effective, and Scottish Heather honey was the winner……  Och aye lassie!

A review of all of the available evidence on honey as a wound management aid makes it clear it should not be regarded as a ‘cure all.”  Not all of Mother Nature’s produce is beneficial, all the time, and honey is no exception.  If used inappropriately, it can actually lead to wound healing delays.  For example, due to its high osmotic effect it would be counterproductive to use honey on a dry wound, or one where the granulation tissue was slow to develop. 

So what’s take home message here?

Honey does not heal wounds, nature heals wounds.  Simply slip-slop-slapping the sweet stuff onto any old wound is not a replacement for good quality wound care.   It may APPEAR to do a very good job of healing a wound…a wound that would have likely healed just as well on its own, if kept clean and moist. However, in the overall scheme of things people like to slap on gaping areas of raw flesh, honey is likely to be one of the least concerning.

With all wound management applications, there is a right time and a wrong time to use honey, honey.  Your vet needs to evaluate when the time is right to make use of such topical applications, and the quicker he/she can do that, the better.  Remember, each horse and each wound is different, what worked for your friend’s horse, cannot simply be extrapolated to your situation.  Some of the most unimpressive wounds can create the biggest problem, especially on lower limbs where you have a lot of joints and tendons/ligaments running close to the surface.  If such structures are involved, then honey is absolutely the last thing that needs to go on, and your vet is absolutely the first person you need to call.

Honey is not simply the wonder, cure-all it’s touted to be in many horsey circles.  However, if you feel the need to fill a bare spot in your medicine cabinet, don’t run off to your local store to pick up a jar, it’s likely to have more bacteria and fungus than the wound itself!

My parting words on wounds…..

  • A wound really wants to heal itself….help, don’t hinder.
  • The solution to pollution is dilution i.e. water, water, more water. 
  • If you would not put it in your eye, do not put it on a wound!
  • All bleeding eventually stops 😉
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