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he development of antibiotics is one of the greatest achievements of modern medicine. But before their invention, doctors or healers used everything from knives to leeches and even honey to alleviate patients’ suffering. Now, some researchers believe that the development of antibiotics and their extensive use can build resistance to antibiotics. This can require our society to come back to such old treatments and cures.

Abuse or misuse of antibiotic therapy has led to the development of highly resistant organisms to these drugs, making infections much more difficult to treat. Thus, some experts believe that humanity may have to return to alternative therapies used in the past. Let’s see, then, how infections were treated before antibiotics and antibacterial drugs.

“Bloodletting,” a 3,000-year-old therapy

Bloodletting, more commonly known in history as intentional bleeding had its origins in ancient Egypt, sometimes around 1000 BC, and is still used to this day. From antiquity until the 1940s, bleeding was recommended for many diseases, but especially for infections. Even in 1942, a well-known textbook of internal medicine recommended this treatment for pneumonia.

Bloodletting in 1860, one of only three known photographs of the procedure. (Source: Wikimedia Commons/Public Domain)

Bloodletting is based on an ancient medical theory that the four “moods” (fluids) of the body — blood, phlegm, yellow bile, and black bile — must be in balance to ensure health. Because infections were thought to be caused by excess blood in the body, blood was taken from the patient to restore balance to the body.

There were mainly three methods for bleeding: a small incision was made in the vein. The second method is using suction cups through which small blood vessels were broken, at the subcutaneous level. The third method was to use leeches that would suck the blood out of the patient’s body.

The practice of bleeding is not without its benefits — at least not for certain types of bacteria in the early stages of infection. Many bacteria need iron to multiply, and iron is carried in the body by components of red blood cells. Therefore, at least theoretically, fewer red blood cells in the body mean less iron to support the development of bacterial infection.

Syphilis treated with mercury

Some chemical elements or natural chemical compounds have been used as therapies for all sorts of infections — especially for open wounds or syphilis.

Marriage a-la-Mode №3 (The Inspection) by painter William Hogarth depicts Viscount Squanderfield and his mistress suffering from the effects of syphilis. (Source: Wikimedia Commons/Public Domain)

Various compounds with iodine, bromine, or mercury were used to treat infected wounds and gangrene during the American Civil War. Bromine was used most often, but its application to the wound was extremely painful and could even affect the tissues.

From the 14th century until the years 1910–1920, mercury was used to treat syphilis. Mercury compounds were either applied directly to the skin or taken orally or injected. Side effects included dermatological problems, kidney and brain damage, or even death.

Salvarsan, an arsenic derivative, was also used to treat syphilis in the first half of the 20th century. Although it was effective, it had as side effects optic neuritis, fever, kidney problems or death. Fortunately, since 1943, the development of penicillin has made it possible for syphilis to be treated effectively and without problems.

Honey used as an Ointment

Over the centuries, various herbal remedies have been used to treat infections. One of the best-known therapies of this kind is based on quinine, used to treat malaria. Even today, the treatment of malaria is based on a synthetic quinine formula.

Ancient Egyptians bake honey cakes (Source: Wikimedia Commons/Public Domain)

In the past, the bark of the cinchona tree was chopped into a fine powder, mixed with water, and administered to the patient as a drink. The use of this remedy for fever is documented by Jesuit missionaries in the New World in the seventeenth century, but indigenous peoples probably used it for a long time.

Artemisinin, synthesized from the plant Artemisia annua, was another effective treatment against malaria.

Honey is still considered a miracle food today, used as a natural remedy. This was also used by the Sumerians to treat wounds since the third millennium BC. Sugar in honey can dehydrate bacterial cells, while its acidity inhibits the growth of bacteria. Honey also contains an enzyme that kills bacteria. The strongest honey is Manuka honey, say, experts, derived from the flower of the tree of the same name. This honey has even more antibacterial properties than other types of honey.

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