Maggots as Medical Microsurgeons?

By Cory Bickel

Patients with slow-healing wounds have been visiting their doctors for a strange kind of prescription lately — a crawly, squirmy dose of maggots.

Treating While They Eat

While this treatment may sound gross, maggots can be very helpful to these patients. The larvae of some species of flies will eat dead tissue in wounds and leave healthy tissue; helping it to grow while removing the food source for bacteria that cause infections. Doctors put the maggots into a pouch of gauze and place them on the wound. The maggots secrete fluids that digest unhealthy tissue and then absorb the nutrients. Maggots also help wounds to heal by secreting antibacterial compounds — proteins that stop inflammation that can damage tissue — and compounds that speed the body’s healing abilities.

Ancient Medicine in the Modern World

Maggots have been used medicinally for thousands of years; including by Mayan Indians, during the Renaissance and during the Civil War. They were a popular method of treating wounds and preventing infection until antibiotics, such as Penicillin, replaced them in the 1940s. Now, with more and more strains of antibiotic resistant bacteria emerging, doctors are turning again to maggots to treat wounds. Maggots can stop infections of resistant bacteria, including flesh-eating bacteria such as Staphylococcus aureus that can’t be treated by regular methods.


Photo Credit: Bernd Baum, BiologiQ

In 2004, maggots, along with leeches, became the first animals to be approved by the FDA as “medical devices.” Maggots are now grown for medical use in sterile environments that make them safe to put into open wounds.

This creepy kind of treatment may see a lot more use with diseases like diabetes becoming more prevalent, where poor circulation can cause severe sores and wounds. With the increase in antibiotic-resistant bacteria, more and more patients with wounds that are slow to heal and difficult to treat will need alternative treatments. Maggots provide a safe and simple method for helping these patients who may have few options left.

Classroom Discussion

  • What kind of difficulties or challenges would arise when using medical maggots?
  • What other "old-fashioned" treatments are still being used today?