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Bee products are generating a lot of buzz
By Adam Voiland | U.S. News & World Report
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Published: 1/26/2009 12:00 AM

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A spoonful of sugar may help the medicine go down, but what if the sweet stuff is the medicine? Sounds too good to be true, but the evidence is piling up that honey has some real medical value, especially for healing wounds and burns.

When it comes to other bee products, however, be wary. Much of the buzz around royal jelly, bee venom and propolis may be more scientific fiction than fact.

U.S. News & World Report scoured the medical literature to find five situations in which today's best scientific evidence suggests that our six-legged, pollen-toting pals can help, and five for which the jury's still out.

Bee products can help if ...

1. You have a burn. Seared your hand while baking? No worries. Of the many supposed medical benefits of honey, few have been studied as extensively as its soothing effect on burns. In fact, a review published in October in Cochrane Reviews synthesized data from multiple studies and concluded that honey reduces healing time more than conventional gauze and film dressings that are often used to treat moderate burns.

2. You have an infected foot or leg ulcer that's slow to heal. Nope, this doesn't mean that downing a teaspoon of honey will make the gaping ulcer on your leg magically disappear. In fact, treating an ulcer with honey doesn't involve eating even a drop of honey.

Here's how it does work: There's a certain type of honey from New Zealand called Manuka honey that has potent antimicrobial properties. Your doctor can get you a prescription for a wound dressing infused with this honey, and some studies suggest it can hasten healing.

3. You have a cough. If you think over-the-counter cough medications actually help, think again. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration has been questioning the value of these medicines, and the agency has warned that children under the age of 2 should never use them because of potential side effects.

What are parents to do when they've got a sneezing, sniffling, coughing kid on their hands? A spoonful of buckwheat honey might be a good place to start. Researchers at Penn State College of Medicine recently compared honey with a cough suppressant called dextromethorphan and found that honey worked better.

4. You have Fournier's gangrene. Fournier's gangrene, a frightening type of gangrene that mainly affects men, is caused by a bacterial infection that infiltrates the genital region. Though quite rare, the combination of virulent and aggressive microbes that cause the problem can result in organ failure and death. Thankfully, honey seems to help.

A study published in 2004 showed that men treated with honey-soaked gauze dressings recovered more quickly than those who got a common solution called Eusol, which is a combination of lime, boric acid and water. While some patients in both groups died (one of the 14 men in the honey group, two of 16 in the Eusol group) and nine in each group required skin grafts, the men treated with honey were released from the hospital after an average of 19 days, compared with 27 days for the Eusol group.

5. You're infected with MRSA. Methicillin-resistant Staph aureus has long been a threat in hospitals, and the antibiotic-resistant bacterium has recently emerged in places other than health care settings. Usually, MRSA bacteria infects only its victim's skin, which results in a reddish rash, but sometimes the colony penetrates farther into the body, where it can become fatal. The good news is that research shows Manuka honey is surprisingly adept at killing the bug.

The jury's still out if ...

1. You have multiple sclerosis. Boosters have long maintained that bee venom can help temper the ravages of multiple sclerosis, but evidence has always been in short supply. In 2005, researchers from the Netherlands attempted to get to the bottom of the issue by running a small placebo-controlled study of 26 patients. Their conclusion: Bee venom did not reduce disease activity, disability or fatigue and did not improve quality of life.

Other researchers from Georgetown University have found that taking bee venom is safe for people with multiple sclerosis, but say that larger studies are needed to know whether it offers any health benefit.

2. You have arthritis pain. Even for stoic types, the pain from this inflammatory disease can be excruciating. And since the widely used arthritis drug Vioxx tumbled off the market in 2004, many people have been forced to find new ways to control arthritic pain.

How about rolling up your sleeves and having scores of bees sting away, putting a surge of bee venom into your body? Some people actually do this, but you won't find many medical associations touting bee venom therapy just yet.

3. You have chronic sinusitis. Some 30 million to 40 million Americans have chronic sinusitis, an exasperating condition that leaves people with near-constant headaches, endlessly sniveling noses and yellowish discharge in the back of the throat.

In September, word emerged at the American Academy of Otolaryngology-Head and Neck Surgery Foundation's annual meeting that honey is better at destroying the biofilms produced by the offending bacteria than traditional antibiotics. The next step: making sure these Petri dish findings apply inside the human body.

4. You want to live longer. When worker bee larvae are fed only royal jelly - a clear, nutrient-laden type of bee food - they grow and morph into long-lived queens. Might it also make humans bigger, stronger and longer living? Many people believe so, and royal jelly has become a pricey supplement that's a regular offering at natural health stores. Few medical researchers, however, are convinced it does much more than the jelly we slap on our toast in the morning.

5. You have earwax. Would you hold a beeswax-coated tube that's on fire up to your ear in an effort to vacuum out earwax? It sounds like a recipe for disaster, yet "ear candling" has become a popular therapy that proponents claim relieves everything from sinusitis to postnasal drip. However, a scientific study has shown that lit candles don't produce enough suction to draw wax out. They've also demonstrated that gunk that's supposedly exhumed earwax is actually debris produced by the candle. If you're still tempted by the allure of ear candling, be aware that a generous layer of earwax actually keeps our ears healthy and shouldn't be removed at all, according to recently released medical guidelines. Plus, doctors say that if hot wax gets accidentally dripped into the ear canal, it can do real harm.