Silver in Medicine

Even before people fully understood how silver worked as an antibiotic, the metal was used to prevent the growth of dangerous germs. On long ocean voyages, for example, silver coins were dropped into water and wine casks to keep the liquids fresh. For decades, physicians placed several drops of silver nitrate into newborns’ eyes to prevent infection.

During World War I, battlefields wounds were wrapped in silver foil and silver sutures were used to close deep wounds.

More recently, silver coatings are being placed on medical devices such as breathing tubes and catheters to help fight infections. It’s also being applied to artificial bones and scaffolding used to keep bones in place while they mend. Silver is found in bandages and ointments because it keeps bacteria at bay, allowing the body to heal faster.

Silver has also been shown to be effective against bacteria that are becoming resistant because of the overuse of chemical antibiotics. For example, a life-threatening Staph germ called MRSA (Methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus), often referred to as a “superbug” and found in healthcare facilities, is resistant to almost all chemical antibiotics. To fight back, many facilities are employing silver-imbedded equipment including surgical tools, needles, stethoscopes, furniture, door handles, furniture, linens and even paper files.

Only during the past few years have scientist learned how silver works as a biocide. Silver ions can penetrate the cell walls of bacteria – without injuring mammalian cells – thus destroying the chemical and structural bonds essential for the bacteria’s survival and growth.

For more information on silver and medicine, see Silver in Medicine Backgrounder.

Silver in medicine has numerous applications