Honey & Catheters

Those most high-tech of spaces – the intensive care units and emergency rooms – are looking towards your grandmother's cupboard fora solution to a long-standing problem: How do you keep flexible, invasive tubes such as catheters free of infection?

Mary Poppins suggested that “a spoonful of sugar helps the medicine go down,” but research published in the Journal of Clinical Pathology suggest that it is honey that will do the job for urinary catheters.

These tubes, used to drain the bladder of fluids, are breeding grounds for bacteria. They are used in 25 percent of all hospital patients, and frequently result in infection or inflammation. Researchers from the universities of Southampton and Portsmouth in Australia investigated whether Manuka honey applied to the tubing could prevent biofilms establishing themselves and growing.

Manuka honey is found in Australia and New Zealand, made by the bees that pollinate the local Manuka trees. It is particularly viscous, and has been used to treat wound infections in the past. Studies have also shown it to be effective against leg ulcers.

The researchers cultured strains of E. coli and Proteus mirabilis bacteria – the source of most of the urinary tract infections associated with long term catheter use –  in the lab. They then created various dilutions of the honey, and tested how the solutions reduced the “stickiness” of the bacteria. The lower the stickiness, the less likely a biofilm would develop on the catheter tubing.

They found that a dilution of 16.7 percent reduced the sticiness of the bacteria by 77 percent. "Our study demonstrates that diluted honey is potentially a useful agent for reducing biofilm formation on indwelling plastic devices such as urinary catheters, probably by using a periodic flushing agent,” the team concluded, adding that patients should also benefit from the Manuka honey's inflammatory properties.

These results have so far been obtained only in laboratory conditions. More research is required to determine whether it can be duplicated in a clinical setting. The researchers published their results in The Journal of Clinical Pathology.