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Study: Honey Offers Better Cold Symptom Relief Than Traditional Remedies

Honey dipper in a dish of light-colored honey.

 

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Key Takeaways

  • Upper respiratory tract infections come with symptoms like cough and congestion.
  • Traditional treatments, including antibiotics and over-the-counter medications, have not been shown to be as effective as honey for relieving cold symptoms.
  • Honey might not be able to prevent a cold, but it's a safe alternative remedy for most people who have cold symptoms.

If you have an upper respiratory tract infection—also known as the common cold—researchers have found that honey might be more effective at relieving your symptoms than traditional treatments.

A study published on August 18 in The British Medical Journal evaluated 1345 unique records and 14 studies that compared honey to standard medical treatments for upper respiratory tract infection symptoms, such as cough frequency, cough severity, sleep difficulty, and congestion.

The researchers found that using honey for symptom relief appeared to be more effective than other remedies, including antibiotics, coffee, prednisone, over-the-counter cough suppressants, and even placebo. The findings were the same for children and adults.

A Natural Cold Remedy

Having a natural treatment for upper respiratory infections would be a welcome alternative to the usual medical remedies—particularly antibiotics.

Lawrence Wade Manaker, MD, an emergency medicine physician and assistant professor at the Medical University of South Carolina, says he hesitates to prescribe antibiotics for these infections.

“The majority of upper respiratory tract infections are caused by viruses and are self-limited illnesses,” Manaker tells Verywell. “Antibiotics are not indicated for and are ineffective against viruses. Overuse of antibiotics can increase bacterial resistance to antibiotics, making it harder to cure true bacterial infections. There is also the risk of side effects such as severe diarrhea and allergic reactions.”

Upper respiratory tract infections are the most frequent reason for an antibiotic prescription.

Research has demonstrated that a lack of alternative therapies and the desire to preserve the patient-doctor relationship are two key contributors to antibiotic over-prescription by general practitioners.

Honey could be a viable—and perhaps even better—alternative. "Honey can be a great alternative to antibiotics and other cold and cough medications that may have significant side effects in children," Manaker says.

What This Means For You

Honey may offer low-cost and effective relief for the respiratory symptoms, but it can't prevent colds. You'll still need to practice good hand hygiene and bolster your immune system through diet and exercise.

How Does Honey Relieve Cold Symptoms?

Upper respiratory tract infections are infections of the upper parts of the respiratory system. This includes anything above the lungs, such as the throat, sinuses, larynx (laryngitis), trachea, and bronchi. Upper respiratory tract infections are often simply called "a cold."

The positive health effects of honey have been known for over a hundred years. Its high viscosity (mostly due to its high sugar concentration and low water content) helps it provide a protective barrier that prevents infection. The mild acidity and hydrogen peroxide content of honey also have antimicrobial effects.

Honey might not be able to prevent a cold, but consistently using it appears to at least help ease symptoms.

Is Honey Safe for Everyone?

Melissa Azzaro, RDN, LD, a registered dietitian and the author of A Balanced Approach to PCOS tells Verywell that she appreciates when there is evidence to support natural or traditional remedies. However, she also points out that certain populations should avoid honey.

Who Should Not Use Honey

People who should not use honey to treat a cold include:

  • Babies under the age of 1 year old
  • People who are allergic to honey
  • Pregnant people or any individuals who are avoiding unpasteurized products, (unless a pasteurized honey is available).

Honey is also a natural sugar. Azzaro says it should be considered as such when you're factoring it into your daily intake, particularly if you have diabetes.

How to Use Honey for a Cold

Using honey can be as simple as taking a spoonful, Mary Poppins style. "While the study didn't specify the ideal ‘dose,’ adding a spoonful of honey to your tea may be useful," Azzaro says. "I recommend adding it to ginger tea with lemon to ease symptoms of a cold."

The doses mentioned in the studies that were included in the meta-analysis varied considerably. One study showed positive results when using 10 grams of honey, while another used 2.5 milliliters.   

It's not clear whether taking honey as a preventative measure is beneficial. Manaker says your best bet for avoiding a cold is to practice proper hand hygiene, and that you should also stay home from school or work if you're feeling unwell.

If you do come down with a sniffle and are looking for quick, cheap, and tasty relief from your symptoms, there's really no downside to checking your pantry before you head to the pharmacy.

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  1. Abuelgasim H, Albury C, Lee J. Effectiveness of honey for symptomatic relief in upper respiratory tract infections: a systematic review and meta-analysis. BMJ Evid Based Med. 2020 Aug 18;bmjebm-2020-111336.doi:10.1136/bmjebm-2020-111336

  2. Albaridi N. Antibacterial potency of honey. Int J Microbiol. 2019 Jun 2;2019:2464507. doi:10.1155/2019/2464507