Honey is not just an age-old natural sweetener or your everyday remedy for cough and cold, as a newly released study shows this amber-colored viscous liquid makes a “reasonable alternative” to antibiotics.
The study published in The BMJ peer-reviewed journal (originally called the British Medical Journal) specifically focused on Upper Respiratory Tract Infections (URTIs) accompanied by acute coughs and colds that are frequently treated with antibiotics.
A team of researchers at the Nuffield Department of Primary Care Health Sciences and the Oxford University Medical School conducted the review based on 1,345 unique records and 14 studies. The researchers found that honey is “more effective and less harmful” than the regular alternatives, and it “avoids causing harm through antimicrobial resistance.”
URTIs are a common complaint during the winter and especially in children. While many patients want a quick fix to the painful and uncomfortable symptoms they cause, the majority of these infections are viral in origin rather than bacterial.
The study also cited other researches on how giving antibiotics to people with viral infections is “both ineffective and inappropriate.” The overprescription of antibiotics in cases like these is a “key drive” for antimicrobial resistance, the study noted.
For general practitioners, who are the first port of call for patients with sore throats, it is difficult not to be able to offer any remedies. The problem comes when adult patients are desperate for relief from coughs and colds so they can go back to work or when children are suffering and unable to sleep because of acute symptoms related to URTIs.
The BMJ’s 2003 interview-based study with 40 general practitioners noted that these medical doctors are “uncertain which patients will benefit from antibiotics.” However, due to their concerns about complications, general practitioners do prescribe antibiotics for “sicker patients and for patients from socioeconomically deprived backgrounds.”
The good news for doctors in these situations is that honey not only outperformed placebo in the 2020 BMJ study, but it also beat common cough and cold remedies. This included slightly better results than the cough suppressant dextromethorphan, one of the active ingredients in cough syrups. When compared with diphenhydramine, the antihistamine found in cough syrups, honey was far superior in reducing cough frequency and severity.
“Honey was associated with a significantly greater reduction in combined symptom score, cough frequency and cough severity,” the study noted.
However, the studies comparing honey to the usual remedies for sore throat, such as cough syrup and cold medicine, do have some drawbacks in that the kind of honey used wasn’t standardized. Some of the data looked at people who took honey with milk and others at those who took it with coffee.
“A disadvantage of including these studies is the difficulty in knowing how much of any effect is due to honey, and how much might it be due to the other ingredients,” the study said.
The other issue is that every batch of honey is different from the next depending on the kind of honeybee that produced it as well as the myriad flowers that the bees feed on. Other things like filtering and pasteurization might also have an effect.
But regardless of these caveats, the researchers of the BMJ study believe honey is a clear front-runner in the search for alternatives to antibiotics.
“Honey is a frequently used lay remedy that is well known to patients,” they wrote. “It is also cheap, easy to access, and has limited harms,” they said.
So what to do next when a sore throat strikes? Although each family has its own version of how to use honey to relieve cough and cold symptoms, many include warm water, honey, and lemon juice to include vitamin C to support your immune system.
In whatever form you consume honey, for minor cough- and cold-related complaints, it could be a safer and more effective, not to mention cheaper, alternative to antibiotics. And who knows, soon this golden sweet nectar may be just what doctors prescribe!