Is honey one of the best treatments for coughs and colds? Maybe even better than medication and antibiotics? A new review suggests so – though with the caveat that over-the-counter medications do not actually offer much relief for sore throats, hacking coughs and sniffling noses. In other words, the bar for success is not that high. Plus, antibiotics do not actually do anything against viral infections like colds. So, the bar is not that high to begin with.

Treating colds with honey might sound a little pseudoscientific, but it is been a standard recommendation from doctors for children for at least a decade. The research on adults and honey is not so clean cut though: Only five out of the 14 studies in newer research included adult patients, and several of those studies included combination treatments like honey in coffee, or honey and herbal syrups. So, the data is not as solid as we’d like.

Researchers are not sure why honey might help to tackle cold symptoms, but it could have something to do with its antioxidants or the fact that it is viscous and thus coats an irritated throat. Regardless, treating respiratory symptoms with honey is not a high-risk approach. Honey is also cheap and readily available.

The bottom line is do not expect honey to work miracles, but do not ignore its positive potential either. It might make the experience of getting over a nasty cold just a little less miserable.

Honey’s History

Honey has been a home remedy for soothing sore throats and calming coughs – both of which can be grouped as infections of the upper respiratory tract. It is pretty well known as a respiratory infection treatment in Ayurveda, the healing tradition of India’s ancient Vedic culture. And honey mixed with hot water and lemon is up there with chicken soup in the top tier grandma cold cures.

In 2004, scientists published a study finding that the two commonly used over-the-counter cough medicines used in children, dextromethorphan and disphenhydramine, did not work better than a placebo at helping kids cough to feel better and sleep when they needed to. And the two drugs had negative side effects, including drowsiness for some children and issues sleeping for others.

So in 2007, scientists did a follow up study comparing dextromethorphan, honey and no treatment in night time cough in 130 children. They discovered that honey would often score the best for reducing cough frequency and severity and improving nighttime sleep over drug and no drug approaches, according to parents’ ratings.

Honey for Adults?

Another study comes to similar conclusions for all ages. Honey is an especially good alternative to prescribing antibiotics, they wrote: most upper respiratory tract infections are the result of viruses, and antibiotics do nothing against viral infections. In addition, overuse of these medications can lead to antibiotic resistance in microbes. Previous studies also found that there is no great evidence for over-the-counter cough medicines working for adults.

One unanswered question is why honey would help soothe cold symptoms more than over-the-counter methods. A possibility is that the antimicrobial ingredients in honey directly fight off the pathogen causing the cold, experts suggest. Another is that honey is viscous, coats and soothes an irritated throat. Honey – like most cough syrups – is also sweet, and the part of the brain that processes sweetness is near the part of the brain that controls cough, so there may be some interaction of nerves or neurotransmitters that calms cough in response to certain sugary flavours. Experts further state that sweetness also causes salivation, which might thin mucus. But currently, not one has a definitive answer and I am sure there will be more studies trying to understand why honey has such a powerful effect on cold.