Silver is a precious metal with many uses, from jewelry to industrial applications. However, not many people are aware of silver’s medicinal properties. It’s actually a great healer, but it is not without its side-effects.
When it comes to medicine, silver’s secret is the oligodynamic effect – a mechanism that makes heavy metal ions antimicrobial. Scientists aren’t 100% sure how the oligodynamic effect works, but many theorize it has to do with the metal ions irreversibly damaging important enzymes within the microbes. Other metals, such as lead and mercury, also exhibit the oligodynamic effect. But unlike these other metals, silver is the least toxic to humans.
In any case where bacteria or infections are a threat, silver can prove to be very helpful – and it is used as such. Centuries ago, people recognized silver’s antibacterial properties and stored milk, wine, and other perishables in silver containers. In modern times, silver lined or coated medical devices – like catheters, breathing tubes, and prostheses – have been shown to dramatically reduce the risk of infection.
Because of silver’s effective antimicrobial properties, many types of liquid suspensions and ointments were developed and used to treat both topical and internal diseases and infections. However, this was largely discontinued not only because of the development of safe and effective antibiotics, but because of health concerns – namely, a condition called Argyria. When silver solutions are repeatedly ingested – or even topically applied, as in some cases – they can be absorbed by the body’s soft tissues and cause a permanent blue/gray discoloration of the skin known as Argyria.
In light of this risk, silver is no longer used in actual medicines. Still, it is very useful in purifying solutions and creating infection-free environments.