Natural remedies: Can honey really help cure a cold?
A recent review suggested that honey could be ‘superior’ to other forms of care for the common cold, but some experts have questioned the research. So, is honey really nature’s remedy, or just an old wives’ tale?
Honey has been used by humans for thousands of years. Descriptions of its medicinal use are found in the Qur’an and the Bible, as well as in texts by Hippocrates, the Greek physician credited with devising the Hippocratic Oath and considered one of the fathers of early medicine.
An 8,000-year-old cave painting, discovered in Spain in 1924, depicts a man gathering honey from a beehive.
It’s now known that honey is antimicrobial. Studies have shown its effectiveness in fighting the Salmonella and E. coli bacteria, and a medical-grade honey is used to treat some wounds, thanks to its anti-inflammatory properties.
Can honey treat the common cold?
Honey is a home remedy usually offered to cold and flu sufferers, but the evidence for its effectiveness has only recently been systematically reviewed.
Scientists at the University of Oxford found that honey was ‘superior’ in soothing symptoms for those with a cold, flu or other upper respiratory tract infection (URTI). They reviewed 14 different studies, each comparing honey to another method of care for URTIs, such as cough suppressants, steroids and antibiotics.
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However, epidemiologist Gideon Meyerowitz-Katz questioned the quality of the studies included, and therefore the validity of the conclusion that honey could be better than usual care methods.
“Certainly the studies included were not the finest trials ever conducted,” says Dr Joseph Lee, one of the authors of the new study. “Ultimately that’s why we have called for more studies to be done. In clinical medicine, we have to decide what to do now, based on what is available.”
So, does this nullify the findings?
“It makes us less confident that honey is effective, but it doesn’t change the recommendation, given that the alternatives don’t work, or are harmful,” says Lee. “For example, we know that people end up taking antibiotics for URTIs.
"In fact, this is one of the biggest reasons for antibiotic consumption. Antibiotics can have side effects like diarrhoea and vomiting, rashes and allergic reactions. Worse still, it causes antimicrobial resistance that threatens the future of medicine.”
Honey consumption, on the other hand, has a good safety profile, says Lee. But honey is also an extremely variable product. It can contain 200 different substances, including different proteins, vitamins and minerals. Primarily, though, honey is sugar and water.
“My main point about the piece wasn’t necessarily the included studies," says Meyerowitz-Katz, "but that it was a narrative review, which is technically more of a well-research opinion piece than evidence as such.”
Should I have honey if I have a cold?
It is well recognised that syrups, including honey, have a demulcent effect: relieving irritation by forming a cooling film around the throat. Over-the-counter cough medicines emulate this with added sugar, the sweet taste stimulating salivation and mucus secretions that soothe and lubricate the airway.
“It is the sweetness that is the common factor across honey, cough medicines and sore throat lozenges,” says Prof Ron Eccles, who ran the Common Cold Centre at Cardiff University for nearly 30 years. All three will be just as effective in treating cough and sore throat, but not other symptoms.
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“The most common and disturbing symptom of URTI in infants is fever, where honey has no benefit, but usual treatments – paracetamol and ibuprofen – are very effective,” says Eccles. “Another symptom of the common cold or flu is congestion, and honey will not unblock one’s nose.”
“Painkillers such as paracetamol, aspirin and ibuprofen would be my first treatment for colds and flu,” Eccles recommends, “followed by a hot, tasty drink.”
Amy is the Editorial Assistant at BBC Science Focus. Her BA degree specialised in science publishing and she has been working as a journalist since graduating in 2018. In 2020, Amy was named Editorial Assistant of the Year by the British Society of Magazine Editors. She looks after all things books, culture and media. Her interests range from natural history and wildlife, to women in STEM and accessibility tech.