Silver: A Precious Medical Commodity

November 6, 2023

Silver is one of the most versatile metals on Earth and while its uses span many industries, its application in medicine makes this element a standout across centuries.

  • Surgeons began using silver sutures to reduce postoperative inflammation (1800s)
  • Newborns in the U.S. were prescribed silver nitrate eye drops to prevent conjunctivitis* (Early 1900s)
  • Soldiers in World War 1 carried silver leaf dressings to help fight infections (Early 1900s)
  • Silver sulfadiazine-cream was applied to burn wounds to prevent infections (Mid 1900s)
  • NASA used silver ions to kill bacteria and for water purification on the International Space Station (Late 1900s)
  • Silver nanoparticles are used in targeted anti-cancer-therapy (Mid 2000s) 

Today, silver is critical to many  life-saving medical advancements. From the everyday to the extraordinary, silver remains a major catalyst changing the face of medicine and dramatically impacting the human experience.

Antimicrobial Properties

Silver’s strong antimicrobial properties allow it to kill or inhibit the growth of bacteria and viruses. Silver ions disrupt the cellular structure of bacteria, making them unable to replicate or survive. This property is particularly important in preventing and treating infections. 

Wound Care

Silver is used to promote and facilitate wound healing. Variations of silver sulfadiazine creams and dressings help to prevent and treat infections in wounds, burns, and other skin injuries.

Did you know Alaska is home to the largest producing silver mine in the United States? The team at Hecla Greens Creek Mine has demonstrated that its safety record and environmental stewardship are among the best in the world. Located in Southeast Alaska within the Admiralty Island National Monument, the ore body contains silver, zinc, gold, and lead.

Medical Devices

The antimicrobial properties of silver prevent microbial colonization on surfaces, making it the ideal material for a range of medical tools and devices including:

  • Surgical instruments
  • Catheters
  • Breathing tubes
  • Prosthetic heart valves
  • Pacemakers

Silver Nanoparticles

Silver nanoparticles are used in drug delivery systems, diagnostic tools, and as a component of wound dressing. Their unique properties make them effective in targeting specific cells and tissues.

Topical Antiseptics

Silver-containing antiseptic solutions and gels are used to clean and disinfect skin before medical procedures, reducing the risk of infection.

Dental Health

Silver diamine fluoride is a dental treatment that incorporates silver ions to delay tooth decay and prevent its progression. It is particularly useful in pediatric dentistry.

Antibiotic Resistance

The rise of antibiotic-resistant bacteria has led to increased interest in alternative antimicrobial agents. Silver can be an effective option for infections that do not respond to conventional antibiotics. 

Resources: National Institute of Health, National Library of Medicine, Silver Institute, World Silver Survey, Visual Capitalist.

*This practice has largely been replaced by the use of erythromycin.