MadSci Network: Medicine

Re: How does hydrogen peroxide work to cleanse a wound?

Date: Tue Dec 21 19:58:24 1999
Posted By: John Carlson, Medical student, MD/PhD (parasitology) , Tulane University, School of Medicine
Area of science: Medicine
ID: 944103546.Me

Dear Bob,

Hydrogen peroxide (H2O2) is highly toxic to cells because it is an unstable, and therefore highly reactive compound. Our immune system uses the toxicity of hydrogen peroxide to kill off bacterial invaders. The release of hydrogen peroxide in our bodies not only kills bacterial cells, but kills our body's cells too. To protect against damage by our own immune system, our cells produce an enzyme called catalase. Catalase breaks down the toxic hydrogen peroxide into harmless water and oxygen gas. An excellent explanation for how catalase works can be found in a MAD Scientist essay by Lynn Bry.

Unfortunately for us, some bacteria can also produce catalase. This bacterial catalase does well in protecting the bacteria against the hydrogen peroxide our immune systems throws at them. (For a list of some infectious bacteria which produce catalase, see this link to a page at Da rtmouth College.)

We do have one more advantage in the battle against the catalase-producing bacteria. We can buy mass-produced hydrogen peroxide, and pour it on our infected skin. The large amount of hydrogen peroxide we add topically is far more than the bacteria can neutralize with their catalase. We simply over-whelm them with the volume of hydrogen peroxide we use.

It's important to be careful with hydrogen peroxide, however. Remember, it not only kills bacteria by overwhelming its catalase, it also kills our own cells by overwhelming our own catalase. Please read the directions carefully or consult a physician before using hydrogen peroxide.

Thank you for your question!


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