Before the discovery of antibiotics, surgeons used to stitch wounds with thread woven with silver as they believed it helped to prevent infection.
Meanwhile, bandages were laced with silver in the First World War, as it was thought to help save lives. And they were right.
As shown in more than a thousand medical studies, silver has powerful antiseptic and wound-healing properties. So just what are the health secrets of this precious metal?
'Research has shown that silver is a powerful antimicrobial agent that is non-irritating and non-toxic,' says Valerie Edwards Jones, professor of microbiology at Manchester Metropolitan University. 'Recent studies have shown that silver can kill up to 650 species of pathogenic microbes.
'The metal consists of thousands of tiny silver ions,' she says. 'These prevent bacteria, viruses and fungi from spreading by entering the cell and deactivating proteins. The microbes cannot reproduce and die, so the spread of infection is prevented.'
There has been a resurgence of medical interest in silver, according to Prof Edwards Jones, because it effectively kills antibiotic resistant bacteria such as MRSA.
PRODUCTS WITH A SILVER LINING
More and more silver-based products that help heal wounds and combat infection are appearing on the shop shelves. So what can silver do for you?
Silver ions kill underarm bacteria responsible for causing bad odour and are non-irritating. Try Nivea for Men's Silver Protect (£2.35, www.boots.com).
Doctors at Great Ormond Street Hospital developed socks containing silver to combat infection and blistering in a foot disease called epidermolysis bullosa. Now the socks are being marketed as they reduce foot odour ( £7.99, www.silversock.co.uk). Crocs are launching an anti-odour sports shoe containing silver in their soles this spring.
Plasters containing silver can reduce the risk of infection and speed healing. Try Boots Advanced First Aid Faster Healing Hydrocolloid Plasters (£3.99 for 16, www.boots.com).
Carex has just launched an antibacterial handwash containing silver. Carex Bacteria Protect (£1.38), from pharmacies and supermarkets nationwide.
Pro Colloidal Silver's atomiser (£13.95 for 250ml) is a solution of colloidal silver which acts as a non-irritating disinfectant when sprayed on to skin or wounds (www.procolloidalsilver.com).
In 2007, the NHS spent more than £23million on silver dressings for leg ulcers and the Health Protection Agency has recommended that silver-coated catheters be introduced for the prevention of urinary tract infections.
Indeed, silver is set to be increasingly added to medical equipment and hospital furniture as a way of preventing hospital-based infections.
'Research with the Heart of England NHS Foundation Trust has found that silver, incorporated in the surfaces of hospital equipment furniture, can reduce bacterial levels by 99 per cent,' says Dr Richard Hastings, microbiologist for BioCote, a Wolverhampton company that makes silver-based medical products.
'This, in turn, cuts infection risk from superbugs such as MRSA, E. coli and salmonella.'
Silver is also emerging as an effective tool for the treatment of skin conditions, burns and wounds.
'Silver dressings are now widely used to aid wound healing. In the treatment of burns, where there is a high risk of irritation and infection, it has been very successful,' says Prof Edwards Jones.
'Silver could also combat skin conditions such as eczema and psoriasis – topical cream containing one per cent silver can suppress the kind of inflammation found in these allergic skin conditions.'
And silver may also one day be used as an internal antibiotic-In a study at the University of Texas, silver particles killed 100 per cent of the HIV virus within three hours. It also killed the flu virus as well as the antibiotic resistant superbug, MRSA.
However, more research needs to be conducted for the internal use of silver to be considered safe. 'A side effect when taken internally, is that you can develop blue discolouration beneath the skin,' says Prof Edwards Jones.
' Researchers would need to know more about this and any other adverse effects before it is used in this way.'