The medical uses of silver are many and they have a long history, mainly as a means of controlling infection through the element’s antibiotic properties. These benefits stem from an oligodynamic effect that’s inherent to pure silver and many silver compounds, which are toxic to some bacteria, algae, and fungi.
At the microbial level, silver cations can puncture the wall of bacterial cells, while silver ions disrupt bacterial cellular respiration, metabolic functions, and DNA replication cycles.
Although it’s harmful to bacteria, silver, in low concentrations, has generally low toxicity for animals. This means it’s mostly safe for controlled contact with human skin as well as in some implantable medical devices. However, the type of silver used in medical applications matters a great deal. These forms are classified as medical-grade silver and include silver nitrate, silver proteinate, and silver sulfadiazine (SSD).
While products containing colloidal silver are sometimes promoted for various health benefits by marketers of alternative medicine, colloidal silver is not considered safe or effective by the FDA.
What Is The Use Of Silver In Medical Manufacturing?
In the medical industry, silver antimicrobial treatments or enhancements are usually made to be applied directly to the skin or as a coating on various hardware. These include tools, surfaces, protective equipment, and implants.
One of the most well-known silver antimicrobial treatments is Silvadene. This SSD-based topical treatment has been used for decades to prevent infection and promote faster healing of second and third-degree burns.
It is not as widely recommended as in the past, but it remains on the World Health Organization’s List of Essential Medicines. Silver is also a common addition to titanium prosthetics used in hip and knee reconstruction, some cardiac devices, and in dental implants and prosthetics. Silver nitrate and silver proteinate have been used in eye drops for the treatment of conjunctivitis.
Silver nitrate is added to some caustic dermatological treatments, usually those meant to remove warts and corns. Silver-coated wound dressings and bandages have been tested and cleared for the treatment of some wound management and skin diseases, including venous leg ulcers. Silver-coated catheters have been made to reduce instances of urinary tract and bloodstream infections, but their efficacy is still being studied.
Silver-coated endotracheal breathing tubes have been shown to reduce the risk of contracting ventilator-associated pneumonia and have been cleared by the FDA for this purpose.
Silver nanoparticles may improve the anti-acanthamoebica properties of drugs used to treat amoeba-caused infections of the central nervous system. These are just some of the more common applications of silver-ions in medical devices.
Can Too Many Silver Antimicrobial Products Be A Bad Thing?
A recently developed medical implant coating may make it possible to incorporate a slow release of silver ions into all types of devices, allowing for long-acting antibacterial benefits within the human body.
This means that silver ions could be incorporated into all manner of medical devices in the near future. The results could be lifesaving where it matters most, but caution is also needed.
Including silver’s antibacterial properties into too many products could pose unexpected hazards. For the last two decades, dozens of new silver antimicrobial products have been patented and promoted for their ability to naturally kill bacteria and prevent infection. Silver-particle shaving cream, deodorant, disposable contact lenses, latex gloves, and even a washable keyboard are just some examples.
Wider use of silver in personal and household products, as well as in agricultural and industrial bacteria control, has raised concerns over environmental impact and adverse health effects from excessive exposure. When silver ions enter the environment in large quantities, beneficial and essential bacteria can be harmed in the process.
The prevalence of silver in waste liquids and disposable products could lead to the generation of bacterial resistance. And while its potential for causing toxicity is low when controlled and contained, excessive application or consumption of silver ions are not harmless.
Because of this scientists have cautioned against using silver as an antimicrobial agent in cases that are not medically justifiable or easily contained.