Ancient medical practice was based not only in the physical and chemical properties of substances but also in supposed magical properties of materials regarded as important, sacred, or precious. While the magic isn’t real, the medical properties of some of these materials have been verified by observation through the centuries. The ancient Greek physician Hippocrates wrote of using silver to treat wounds—and hundreds of years later, soldiers in the First World War used it for the same purpose, and 19th- and 20th-century doctors used it to treat infections.
In fact, doctors use silver dressings for burns to this day. That’s because silver has been scientifically found to have antibacterial properties, meaning the precious metal can play an important role in preventing infection. Recently, researchers determined how it works. Silver had been known to kill bacteria, and the study published in June showed it does so by destroying them physically, breaching the membrane that functions as a bacterium’s skin, as well as disrupting bacterial life functions.
That means silver may play an important role in overcoming the resistance microbes often evolve to antibiotic medications. Relatively few new antibiotics are being developed, but more and more research is focusing on ways to enhance and prolong the effectiveness of existing ones by preventing bacteria from getting acclimated to them. Combining antibiotics with silver was found to make them up to 1000 times as effective at killing bacteria. In addition, silver helped medication break into to the best-protected type of bacteria, which have a shield which ordinarily provides a partial defense against even generally effective medications.
Unfortunately, silver is mildly toxic to healthy human tissue, though less so than other metals with antibacterial properties and far less so than to the bacteria themselves. Colloidal silver, silver particles suspended in water or some other liquid medium, was used to treat and prevent infection before biological antibiotics were discovered, but antibiotics are both more effective—resistance notwithstanding—and less dangerous. One of the best-known side effects of colloidal silver is that regular users turn blue, as happened to some modern-day proponents, but more seriously, it can cause kidney damage and, when taken by pregnant women, fetal development problems.