Views & Reviews Drug Tales and Other Stories

A bee in the bonnet about honey and healing

BMJ 2013; 347 doi: (Published 15 August 2013) Cite this as: BMJ 2013;347:f5015
  1. Robin Ferner, Director
  1. 1West Midlands Centre for Adverse Drug Reactions, Birmingham City Hospital, Birmingham B18 7QH, UK
  1. R.E.Ferner{at}

The editor’s advice to authors can be forthright: “We can assure [him] that we are doing him infinite service by recommending him to restrain his too fluent pen. He is only compromising his position and losing his friends by rushing into fiery print on every possible occasion.”1 The object of this reproach was not me (or Des Spence), but the redoubtable Birmingham surgeon Joseph Sampson Gamgee.2 His tirades were sometimes well directed, as when he condemned the army’s punishment for desertion: branding the letter D on the soldier’s left breast.3 He was well known for his invective, but also his inventions, including a lightweight splint, the sanitary towel, and a tissue dressing of cotton wool sandwiched between gauze pads. “Gamgee tissue” was widely used for a century but is now being eclipsed by designer dressings using seaweed, silver, and sundry other slimy substances. The new dressings are expensive, so financial viability is sacrificed on the altar of so called tissue viability. This is true even though systematic reviews have repeatedly found the evidence for better healing of ulcers and wounds with new dressings to be at best unconvincing.4 5 6 7 8 9 10 11 12 13

Now honey is flavour of the month. In some parts of the world the preferred version is taken not as a teatime treat on toast, but as “mad honey” from bees that have gorged themselves on rhododendrons especially rich in grayanotoxin. Mad honey is an industry in the Turkish province of Trabzon, where men take it (by mouth) to enhance their lust lives. This leads to occasional outbreaks of “mad honey disease,” a syndrome of nausea, vomiting, vertigo, hypotension, dysrhythmia, and syncope that may knock the sugar coating off this Turkish delight.14

The idea that honey, like asses’ milk, is good for the skin goes back to antiquity, so there is hardly any need to demonstrate efficacy. This is probably just as well. Despite the efforts of the honey research unit at the University of Waikato in New Zealand (“set up in 1995, with financial support from the New Zealand Honey Industry Trust”),15 there are few suggestions that honey heals wounds. A Cochrane review found the evidence at best uncertain9; honey may even delay the healing of burns. And I foresee a risk of wasp stings. Until someone can show convincingly that wounds heal better with designer dressings or superior snake oil, we might as well stick to non-adherent gauze.


Cite this as: BMJ 2013;347:f5015


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