Honey for Allergies and Asthma

About 20% of the world's population has allergic diseases like asthma, eczema, and hay fever. People often have more than one allergic condition, and managing them all can be challenging.

What if a spoonful of something you likely have in your kitchen cabinet could offer relief? Some studies show that honey may help ease allergy symptoms, but the research is limited.

This article will go over what the available research says about using honey to treat asthma, eczema, and seasonal allergies.

You'll also learn about the potentially harmful effects of using honey or other bee products to treat allergy symptoms.

Woman pouring honey on a piece of bread
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Therapeutic Effects of Honey

Honey is made from flower nectar. Bees suck the sugary substance from the plants and the nectar mixes with other substances in their digestive system. Here, it transforms into a new substance—honey—which can be harvested from the hive.

People have been using honey medicinally for thousands of years. It's often claimed that honey has antioxidant, antibacterial, and anti-inflammatory qualities.

Some of honey's helpful qualities have been explored in scientific studies. For example:

  • Bee products like honey may help with wound healing.
  • Bee pollen may boost your immune system. That can be helpful if you have allergies because your immune system defends your body against bacteria, viruses, pollutants, dust mites, and other microorganisms that can trigger allergy symptoms.

While it's possible that honey has healing benefits, more research needs to be done. There is not enough evidence to prove that honey is safe and effective for these, or other, purposes.

Honey and Allergies

Honey is often said to be an easy way to ease common cold, flu, or allergy symptoms. For example, if allergies or an illness make you cough, honey can be a good cough suppressant.

Research has suggested that honey could have anti-inflammatory properties. If it's able to help lower inflammation, honey could also help:

Many claims have been made, but the evidence on the anti-allergic effects of honey is mixed.

While some studies have suggested it could help, others have found that honey may actually make allergy symptoms worse. Bee products other than honey can also cause side effects and carry risks.

Allergic Rhinitis

Some studies have looked at whether honey can help people with allergic rhinitis.

This condition, more commonly called "hay fever," causes symptoms like a sore throat, itchy eyes, runny nose, and allergic asthma.

Honey and Antihistamines

For a 2010 study in Malaysia, researchers divided people with allergic rhinitis into two groups.

Group one was asked to take a high dose of honey each day. Group two took an equal amount of corn syrup each day as a placebo treatment. Both groups also took a daily dose of an antihistamine called loratadine.

The people in both groups reported similar improvement in their allergy symptoms during the first four weeks of treatment.

However, only the people in the honey group still had improved symptoms one month after stopping the treatments.

The results of the study suggested that when taken with an antihistamine, honey may help with allergic rhinitis symptoms.

Unrealistic Dose

While the study's findings looked promising, there was a major limitation to the research.

The people in the honey treatment group who saw results had eaten 1 gram of honey per 1 kilogram of their body weight every day for the four-week study period.

For a person weighing 140 pounds, that's approximately 3 spoonfuls of honey every day.

That much honey would be an unrealistic intake goal for some people—especially if they're watching their sugar intake.

Honey Nasal Spray

In 2016, researchers studied whether using a nasal spray made with honey could relieve sneezing, stuffiness, and runny nose from allergic rhinitis.

The study participants were divided into two groups and given medication. Both groups took a daily antihistamine or intranasal corticosteroid spray. One group also took an intranasal spray made with honey as a complementary therapy daily.

At the end of the six-week study, the people who used the intranasal honey spray and the other treatments reported more improvement in their symptoms than the other group.

The researchers thought that the honey spray might have created a protective layer inside of the nasal passage. The coating could have prevented allergens from sticking to the mucous in the nose.

Recap

When used with an antihistamine or corticosteroid medication, honey may relieve allergic rhinitis symptoms.

However, there is not enough evidence to show that honey is effective enough on its own as a treatment for allergic rhinitis.

Allergic Asthma

For many people with asthma, being exposed to an allergen causes their airways to swell. This leads to coughing, wheezing, and difficulty breathing.

Honey may help protect people with asthma by lubricating their airways. This action could help prevent allergens from irritating their airways and triggering inflammation.

Propolis

For a 2021 study, researchers wanted to find out if a component of honey called propolis could treat asthma symptoms like shortness of breath and airway inflammation.

What Is Propolis?

Propolis is a sticky resin in honey. Bees use the substance to stick their hives together.

Propolis is believed to have antimicrobial and anti-inflammatory qualities. It's popular in traditional medicine where it is commonly used for conditions like asthma.

The researchers placed 52 people with asthma into two groups:

  • Group one was asked to take 75 milligrams (mg) of propolis every day
  • Group two got a treatment with no propolis in it as (placebo)

Many of the people who took propolis reported that their asthma symptoms got better.

One of the main benefits they noted was how much air they were able to breathe in and out. People who took propolis also had less inflammation in their respiratory systems.

Propolis Risks

While it could have some health benefits, propolis can cause side effects. There are also risks of using propolis that you should know about.

  • Allergic reactions. One of the main risks of using propolis is having an allergic reaction. If you have a bee allergy, you likely already avoid honey. However, you may not realize that propolis comes from honey. If you are allergic to bees, you should not use propolis.
  • Skin reactions. Some people who use propolis for a long time become allergic to it. For example, people like beekeepers can start getting skin reactions to propolis because they are around bee products a lot. Propolis can also cause people's skin to become sensitive to sunlight.
  • Infections and complications. Rarely, people who use propolis-containing products a lot or for a long time have gotten serious infections or even non-cancerous tumors. There have also been cases of kidney failure in people taking propolis.
  • Blood clotting problems. Propolis can also affect your blood's ability to clot. You should not use propolis if you take medications that thin your blood (e.g. warfarin).

Recap

Honey may help relieve asthma symptoms, but only when used with traditional asthma medications like oral corticosteroids and asthma inhalers.

One component of honey, propolis, may help reduce inflammation in people with asthma but it also has side effects and risks.

Eczema

Researchers have also looked at using honey as a topical treatment for eczema rashes and sores.

Several studies have tested whether putting honey on eczema-affected areas of the skin can soothe itching, reduce inflammation, and prevent infection.

Treating Sores With Honey

For one study, researchers looked at a small group of adults with eczema sores.

Every night for one week, each person put a layer of honey over some of their eczema sores before wrapping them in gauze for the night.

The researchers asked each person to leave some eczema sores untreated. That way, they would be able to compare the untreated areas to the areas where honey was applied.

While the people who used honey were not allowed to use other treatments, they were allowed to moisturize their skin.

After one week, the sores that had been treated with honey were less irritated and inflamed than the sores that were not treated with honey.

Bacterial Contamination

While honey might have reduced the inflammation of the eczema sores, the researchers also noticed a possible downside of the treatment.

When the researchers tested for bacteria concentration, they found that some of the sores that had been treated with honey had more bacteria in them than the untreated sores.

The contamination might have happened because honey has a high sugar content, making it an environment that bacteria can thrive in.

The researchers also noted that their study was very small. They suggested that more studies with larger groups of people and different types of honey need to be done.

Recap

Honey may help some people manage allergy symptoms if it's used with standard treatments like allergy medicines.

However, more research is needed to find out if honey could work as an allergy treatment by itself.

Exposure Therapy

In some cases, being exposed to an allergen can help you become less allergic to it. Overall, this method is called exposure therapy.

Immunotherapy

One of the most effective and lasting allergy treatments is allergen immunotherapy. By exposing you to an allergen with controlled doses, immunotherapy helps you build a tolerance to it.

For the treatment, a healthcare provider gives you a small dose of a specific allergen. They use a needle to inject a little bit of the allergen under your skin. Then, they watch you closely in case you have a reaction.

Over time, your provider will give you bigger and bigger doses of the allergen. Every time, they will monitor you to make sure that you are safe.

Allergen immunotherapy has been shown to relieve symptoms of environmental allergens, such as mold, dust mites, and local plant pollen.

Can Eating Honey Help?

The pollen that you breathe in is the same pollen that your local bees are using to make honey.

Some people have suggested that eating locally-produced honey could help you build up a tolerance to a pollen allergy.

However, there is no solid research to back this theory up. In fact, many experts warn that people with pollen allergies should be very careful about consuming honey.

Some people need to avoid honey and bee products altogether.

Risks

You should never do allergy exposure by yourself. Only a healthcare provider—particularly someone who is trained in allergies (allergist or immunologist)—can help you safely build up a tolerance to an allergen.

Even if honey won't cure your allergies, you may think there's no harm in trying it—but that's not necessarily true.

Exposing yourself to an allergen can lead to serious reactions, including a life-threatening reaction called anaphylaxis.

If you want to try using honey as a form of allergen immunotherapy, talk to your provider.

Recap

In some cases, controlled exposure to an allergen with help from a healthcare provider might help you build up a tolerance to it.

However, you should never try to expose yourself to an allergen on your own. That includes something as simple as eating locally-grown honey if you have a pollen allergy.

Summary

Honey has been used for medicinal purposes around the world for thousands of years.

It may help some people manage their allergy symptoms, but there isn't enough evidence to show that it can replace antihistamines and other standard allergy treatments.

There are also risks to consuming honey, especially if you have allergies. You should never try to do an exposure treatment on your own.

If you want to work on building a tolerance to honey or pollen, talk to your provider.

A Word From Verywell

Many food allergies start when you're a kid. However, you can develop new allergies at any point in your life.

Changes in your immune system or exposure to allergens that your immune system has ever encountered before can lead to allergies in adulthood.

If you suddenly develop rashes or cold-like symptoms or if your symptoms keep coming, you should ask your provider about allergy testing.

Whether you've been allergic to honey or pollen your whole life, are newly diagnosed, or think your symptoms could be caused by the allergens, there are several options for treatment.

Frequently Asked Questions

  • Where is locally-sourced honey sold?

    Locally-sourced honey is sold at many honey farms across the US. Most supermarkets or grocery stores are unlikely to carry these options. You can use websites like localhoneyfinder.org to show you nearby farms offering fresh honey for purchase.

  • Can you be allergic to honey?

    Yes, it is possible to be allergic to honey. Honey allergies are very rare but can lead to a variety of symptoms that range from a small cough to anaphylaxis, a very serious allergic reaction. Anaphylaxis can cause vomiting, hives, increased or slowed heartbeat, trouble breathing, swelling of the face, tongue, or throat, and potentially death.

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