Is honey really a miracle cure for coughs and colds?

A jar of honey.
(Image credit: Shutterstock)

Is honey a better treatment for coughs and colds than over-the-counter medications and antibiotics? A new review of research says yes — though with the caveat that over-the-counter medications don't actually offer much relief for sore throats, hacking coughs and sniffling noses. In other words, the bar for success isn't very high. (And antibiotics do absolutely nothing for viral infections such as colds.)

Treating colds with honey may sound a little hippie-dippy, but it's been a standard recommendation from doctors for children for at least a decade. The research on adults and honey is a bit murkier: Only five out of the 14 studies in the new research review, which was published Aug. 18 in the journal BMJ Evidence-Based Medicine, included adult patients, and several of those studies included combination treatments like honey in coffee, or honey-and-herbal syrups. (Some of the underlying research was also funded by a honey company.)

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Researchers aren't sure why honey might help treat cold symptoms, but it could have to do with its antioxidants or the fact that it's viscous and thus coats an irritated throat. Nevertheless, treating respiratory symptoms with honey is a low-risk endeavor. Honey is also cheap and readily available, said study author Hibatullah Abuelgasim, a fifth-year medical student at the University of Oxford in England.

"First, do no harm," said Ian Paul, a professor of pediatrics at the Penn State College of Medicine, who was not involved in the review but has done research on honey and coughing in children. Cough and cold medications have side effects, Paul told Live Science, and they don't work well.

The bottom line? Don't expect honey to work miracles, but don't dismiss it, either. It may make the experience of getting over a nasty cold just a little less miserable.

Honey's history

Honey has long 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's particularly 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 pantheon of cold cures that grandma would make.

In 2004, Paul and his colleagues published a study in the journal Pediatrics finding that the two commonly used over-the-counter cough medicines used in children, dextromethorphan and diphenhydramine, did not work better than a placebo at helping kids with coughs to feel better and sleep at night. And the two drugs had side effects, including drowsiness for some kids and difficulty sleeping for others.

"Parents at that time asked me, 'Well, where can I get that placebo?'" Paul said. "They wanted to give something."

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So in 2007, Paul and his team followed up with another study, also published in Pediatrics, comparing dextromethorphan, honey and no treatment in nighttime cough in 130 kids. They found that honey consistently scored best for reducing cough frequency and severity and improving nighttime sleep over both dextromethorphan and no treatment, according to parents' ratings.

That study was partially supported by the industry-funded National Honey Board, but the grant was unrestricted, meaning the money was given by the board with no input as to what kind of research it would be used on.

Other research in kids has shown similar results, including a double-blind, placebo-controlled and randomized study published in Pediatrics in 2012. Double-blind means that neither the children, their parents nor the researchers knew if the kids were getting honey or a flavored placebo, in this case silan date extract. On night one, the children got no treatment, and on night two they got either one of three honey products or a placebo. All the groups, including the placebo group, felt better on night 2, the researchers reported, but those who got a honey-containing product reported the most improvement. (This study was also partially funded by a honey industry group, which again did not have any say in the design or process of the research.)

In April 2018, the charitable organization Cochrane released a review on all research on honey and cough in children and concluded that honey probably helps reduce cough symptoms and improves night sleep more than a placebo in kids. (However, honey should never be given to children under the age of 1 because of the risk of infant botulism.) 

Honey for adults?

The new review, led by Abuelgasim, comes to the same 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 drugs leads to antibiotic resistance in microbes. Previous research also finds that there's no great evidence for over-the-counter cough medicines working in adults, according to a 2014 Cochrane review.

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The new review drew on several studies on honey in adults. One was a double-blind, randomized control trial in Iran that compared honey plus coffee to a steroid or to the expectorant guaifenesin (sometimes sold under the brand name Mucinex) for adults with a persistent cough lasting more than three weeks after a respiratory infection had cleared up. The honey and coffee treatment proved to reduce the frequency of coughing the most, the researchers reported in Nature Primary Care Respiratory Journal. Another study, published in the National Journal of Physiology, Pharmacy and Pharmacology, found that patients with a sore throat felt better faster when given honey, anti-inflammatory drugs, antibiotics and antiseptic gargles than when given all of those treatments without honey. In another study, published in the journal Ayu, a honey-containing Ayurvedic cough syrup performed as well as a typical over-the-counter cough syrup in adults.

"A strength was that the majority of studies we included were randomized," Abuelgasim said, referring to the practice of assigning patients to different treatment groups at random. "Weaknesses were that some studies had relatively small sample sizes, and some were not blinded," so participants and/or the researchers knew what treatment each person received.

Not blinding a study by hiding what treatment patients are getting is a possible source of bias. The researchers found other potential sources of bias in the studies they reviewed, including incomplete data due to participants dropping out of the study, and selection bias, which occurs when the individuals studied aren't representative of the larger population.

One unanswered question is why honey would help soothe cold symptoms more than over-the-counter medicines. A possibility is that the antimicrobial ingredients in honey directly fight the pathogen causing the cold, Paul said. Another is that honey is viscous and 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 sugary flavors, Paul said. Sweetness also causes salivation, which might thin mucus.

"Nobody really knows," Paul said.

Originally published on Live Science.

Stephanie Pappas
Live Science Contributor

Stephanie Pappas is a contributing writer for Live Science, covering topics ranging from geoscience to archaeology to the human brain and behavior. She was previously a senior writer for Live Science but is now a freelancer based in Denver, Colorado, and regularly contributes to Scientific American and The Monitor, the monthly magazine of the American Psychological Association. Stephanie received a bachelor's degree in psychology from the University of South Carolina and a graduate certificate in science communication from the University of California, Santa Cruz. 

  • HabitCough
    Dr. Miles Weinberger, MD cured the refractory daytime cough that many children and adults suffer from. He is the first person to permanently cure the dry cough by proxy; without drugs. His peer reviewed and published cure has been available since 1991.
    His website is
  • Tuvwx_11
    When I'm unwell, I seek for natural cures. I've had a persistent cough for a while, and what helped me was a ginger tea with turmeric and honey and just a pinch of pepper. I use this manuka honey: since I enjoy its sweetness, but you may use any other type if you prefer.
  • Hartmann352
    For seeming millennia, it has been known that raw organic honey can provide you with numerous excellent health benefits, in addition to supporting organic cultivation of honey bees in your region.

    One of the most substantial benefits of raw organic honey from your area is that it contains immune stimulating properties from the area where the bees collected pollen. If you are new to an area, eating local raw organic honey can help your body adapt to new allergens and bacteria that is in that area. That latter is especially key for those who suffer from seasonal allergies and with lessening the runny nose, itchy eyes and coughs due to post nasal drip (PND).

    Organic honey also offers many other health benefits and is produced using no antibiotics or pesticides on the bees. Organic beekeepers also strive to allow their bees to naturally forage for pollen in the local area, taking advantage of the local flora and fauna in your area.

    Organic honey is also effective in relieving morning sickness for pregnant mothers. It can be an excellent natural remedy for sore throats and laryngitis. It is also an effective natural remedy for bladder infections when combined with cinnamon. This natural remedy also works for upset stomachs and bad breath problems.

    Raw honey is also an effective natural remedy for fertility issues. It can be combined with raw goat milk to increase sperm counts in men. In women, it can increase chances of successful fertilization.

    With reports going back to the ancient Greeks, Romans and Egyptians*, honey is alluded to in the Sumerian and Babylonian cuneiform writings, the Hittite code and the sacred writings of India, the Veda. Raw organic honey has been used as an antibiotic and topical treatment for abrasions and cuts. For people with diabetic ulcers, which often strike the feet, it can be an effective treatment when many other topical treatments are unsuccessful. Topically, raw organic honey is also good for bleeding gums, eczema and canker sores.

    European settlers introduced European honey bees to New England in about 1638. Honey was used to prepare food and beverages, to make cement, to preserve fruits, to concoct furniture paste-polish and varnish and for topical medicinal purposes.

    If you prefer the sweetness of honey as an alternative to refined sugar, look for raw organic honey from local producers. Not only will you be supporting your local honey producers, but you will also be promoting this vital but often overlooked element of our local food production system.

    Honey is a complex substance, and several factors contribute to its extensive shelf life: its acidity, its low water concentration, and the presence of hydrogen peroxide. To explain why there is hydrogen peroxide in honey, it’s important to understand two key ingredients that make honey: one of those is nectar, and the other is a secretion from the bees themselves.

    Nectar, by the way, is a glandular secretion produced by plants. It’s collected by bees in their honey stomachs, and painstakingly dehydrated by the fanning of their wings. The nectar is mixed with glandular secretions from the bees. These bee secretions contain an enzyme that reacts with the glucose in the nectar. This reaction produces two important components that give honey its preservative properties:
    1) hydrogen peroxide, which is an antibacterial agent
    2) gluconic acid, which lowers the honey’s pH

    Finished raw honey has the proper balance of these two products and will keep almost indefinitely. The key to maintaining honey’s long shelf life is to keep it well-sealed, because it is hygrophilic. What is hygrophilic? If honey is exposed to air it will gradually absorb water in the air, and it will ferment and eventually spoil.

    In Egypt there are hundreds of similar documented ancient remedies, explained in their hieroglyphics, using honey. While I have no medical training, some of the modern medical or dietary claims are potentially more compelling. For example, honey is known to be a useful dietary antioxidant, like fresh berries like blueberries and raspberries. Antioxidants are compounds found in some foods, usually plants, that can halt or slow down cellular damage by eliminating damaging waste products in cells (free radicals).

    Honey was also used by the ancients for wound care, and it seems in this case that they were onto something genuinely useful. Early medical healers cleaned wounds and then packed them with honey or sugar-honey mixtures, either as a slurry or as a compress. In modern times, honey has been found to obstruct about sixty species of bacteria, including several staph and strep species. The acidic, bacteria-inhibiting and bacteria-killing properties of honey as well as its super-saturated sugar concentration are harmful to many flesh-destroying bacteria. Some modern surgeons in both human and veterinary medicine are successfully reviving this ancient practice. This is not quackery but proper wound care management, and in an era of evolving antibiotic resistance, perhaps honey will offer another line of defense against dangerous microbes in wounds like the dreaded Pseudomonas. The one that most often causes infections in humans is called Pseudomonas aeruginosa, which can cause infections in the blood, lungs (pneumonia), or other parts of the body after surgery.

    The medicinal importance of honey has been documented in the world's oldest medical literatures, since the ancient times in man's earliest writings, it has been known to possess antimicrobial property as well as wound-healing activity. The healing property of honey is because it offers antibacterial activity, maintains a moist wound condition, and its high viscosity helps to provide a protective barrier to prevent infection. Its immunomodulatory property is relevant to wound repair too. The antimicrobial activity in most honeys is due to the enzymatic production of hydrogen peroxide. However, another kind of honey, called non-peroxide honey (viz., manuka honey), displays significant antibacterial effects even when the hydrogen peroxide activity is blocked. Its mechanism may be related to the low pH level of honey and its high sugar content (high osmolarity) that is enough to hinder the growth of microbes. The medical grade honeys have potent in vitro bactericidal activity against antibiotic-resistant bacteria causing several life-threatening infections to humans. But, there is a large variation in the antimicrobial activity of some natural honeys, which is due to locations and temporal variation of the sources of nectar. Thus, identification and characterization of the active principle(s) may provide valuable information on the quality and possible therapeutic potential of honeys (against several health disorders of humans).

    The use of traditional medicine to treat infection has been practiced since the origin of mankind, and honey produced by Apis mellifera (A. mellifera) is one of the oldest traditional medicines considered to be important in the treatment of several human ailments. Currently, many researchers have reported the antibacterial activity of honey and found that natural unheated honey has some broad-spectrum antibacterial activity when tested against pathogenic bacteria, oral bacteria as well as food spoilage bacteria. In most ancient cultures honey has been used for both nutritional and medical purposes. The belief that honey is a nutrient, a drug and an ointment has been carried into our days, and thus, an alternative medicine branch, called apitherapy, has been developed in recent years, offering treatments based on honey and other bee products against many diseases including bacterial infections. At present a number of honeys are sold with standardized levels of antibacterial activity. The Leptospermum scoparium (L. scoparium) honey,the best known of the honeys, has been reported to have an inhibitory effect on around 60 species of bacteria, including aerobes and anaerobes, gram-positives and gram-negatives. Tan et al reported that Tualang honey has variable but broad-spectrum activities against many different kinds of wound and enteric bacteria. Unlike glucose oxidase, the antibacterial properties from Leptospermum spp. honeys are light- and heat-stable. Natural honey of other sources can vary as much as 100-fold in the potency of their antibacterial activities, which is due to hydrogen peroxide.

    The manuka, jelly bush and pasture honeys are capable of stimulating the monocytes, the precursors of macrophages, to secrete TNF-α. On the other hand, glycosylated proteins can induce TNF-α secretion by macrophages, and this cytokine is known to induce the mechanism of wound repairing.Furthermore, the ability of honey to reduce ‘reactive intermediates release’ may well limit tissue damage by activated macrophages during wound healing. Thus, the immunomodulatory property of honey is relevant to wound repair.

    Proteus spps.
    Septicemia, urinary infections, woundinfections

    Agbagwa and Frank-Peterside
    Serratia marcescens
    Septicemia, wound infections
    Vibrio cholerae
    S. aureus
    Community acquired and nosocomial infection
    Taormina et al

    Chauhan et al

    Sherlock et al
    E. coli
    Urinary tract infection, diarrhea, septicemia, wound infections
    Chauhan et al

    Sherlock et al
    P. aeruginosa
    Wound infection, diabetic foot ulcer, Urinary infections
    Chauhan et al

    Sherlock et al

    Mullai and Menon
    S. maltophilia
    Pneumonia, urinary tract infection, blood stream infection, nosocomial infection
    Tan et al
    A. baumannii
    Opportunistic pathogen infects immunocompromised individuals through open wounds, catheters and breathing tubes

    10.1016/S2221-1691(11)60016-6Antibacterial activity of ulmo and manuka honeys based on the ZDI produced for clinical (C) MRSA and standard (S) MRSA, E. coli and P. aeruginosa isolates.
    In a study conducted by Times of India, it was revealed that 1 out 8 Indians are hit by chronic sinusitis. Sinusitis is the inflammation of the nasal cavaties and the air spaces around the area of the nose and eyes. Sinus is caused due to a virus and the infection can sustain even if the upper respiratory symptoms are over. There are many cases that shows sinus has plagued many individuals since they were kids. Also, several cases have been reported where honey was consumed for about a year which helped in curing acute sinus problems. Moreover, it was found that the rate at which honey killed the bacteria was way higher than other prescribed drugs. (
    Honey’s long shelf life makes it a convenient sweetener, and it has been widely used in the ancient world both as a stand-alone or as an ingredient in breads, cakes, and other foods.

    Diluted honey does make a first-rate diet for yeasts that can convert sugar to alcohol. Mead is an alcoholic drink that was made all over Asia and Europe for thousands of years, created from fermented honey-water and airborne yeasts, and it is the oldest known alcoholic beverage, reaching at least as far back as 9,000 years ago in northern China and 5,000 years ago in Egypt.

    There were many regional twists on the basic mead recipe, crafted by blending the mead with herbs or fruit bases, or including malt and/or hops in the process to produce mead beer. Oenomel is an ancient Greek drink made from fermented honey and grape juice.

    * Honey is not only delicious, but it will keep practically indefinitely, adding to its value to humans. In one of the great pyramids in Egypt, archaeologists retrieved and tasted honey from ceramic jars, stored 8,500 years ago in a tomb, to provide the owner with food and antiseptics in the afterlife. The scientists reported that the honey tasted fine, like ordinary, fresh honey. Honey is such a good preservative that food items like fruit, when immersed in honey, have been preserved for centuries.

    Honey haas been shown to be an effective anti-microbial agent for thousands of years. Interestingly, the Times of India study indicates that the ingestion of honey and lemon juice, along with other items, is an effective treatment for sinusitis.