Background: The use of silver for the treatment of various maladies or to prevent the transmission of infection dates back to at least 4000 b.c.e. Medical applications are documented in the literature throughout the 17th and 18th centuries. The bactericidal activity of silver is well established. Silver nitrate was used topically throughout the 1800 s for the treatment of burns, ulcerations, and infected wounds, and although its use declined after World War II and the advent of antibiotics, Fox revitalized its use in the form of silver sulfadiazine in 1968.
Method: Review of the pertinent English-language literature.
Results: Since Fox's work, the use of topical silver to reduce bacterial burden and promote healing has been investigated in the setting of chronic wounds and ulcers, post-operative incision dressings, blood and urinary catheter designs, endotracheal tubes, orthopedic devices, vascular prostheses, and the sewing ring of prosthetic heart valves. The beneficial effects of silver in reducing or preventing infection have been seen in the topical treatment of burns and chronic wounds and in its use as a coating for many medical devices. However, silver has been unsuccessful in certain applications, such as the Silzone heart valve. In other settings, such as orthopedic hardware coatings, its benefit remains unproved.
Conclusion: Silver remains a reasonable addition to the armamentarium against infection and has relatively few side effects. However, one should weigh the benefits of silver-containing products against the known side effects and the other options available for the intended purpose when selecting the most appropriate therapy.