Does Honey really help cure coughs and colds?


My mother is big believer is Honey as a cure for coughs and colds. She often touts the benefits of it. Being a skeptic to my core these days I tend to bite my tongue and internally roll my eyes. It’s just liquid sugar, there is nothing magical here … right?

A new study in the BMJ tends to suggest that I may actually have been wrong. I often am.

BMJ Evidence Based Science: Effectiveness of honey for symptomatic relief in upper respiratory tract infections: a systematic review and meta-analysis

Published on Aug 18, 2020, the study by University of Oxford researchers is actually a meta analysis.

What exactly did they do?

Does the fact that it was a meta-analysis, mean that they just googled it?

Not quite.

They searched Pubmed, Embase, Web of Science, AMED, Cab abstracts, Cochrane Library, LILACS, and CINAHL with a combination of keywords and MeSH (Medical Subject Headings) terms.

What did the find?

They identified 1345 unique records. They they soon whittled that down to 14 specific studies.

They do carefully document why they excluded to ensure that confirmation bias is not coming into play here.

OK, to step back a bit. Before publication of this study, what was already known?

Basically this …

  • Honey is a well known lay therapy for symptoms of upper respiratory tract infections (URTIs); other medications for URTIs are ineffective and can have harmful side effects
  • The use of antibiotics for URTIs is a particular problem, because they are ineffective, and contribute to antimicrobial resistance
  • A Cochrane systematic review found that honey can improve cough in children; honey has not been systematically reviewed for other URTI symptoms, or in other patient groups

What new information does this study now reveal about honey?

  • Honey is more effective than usual care alternatives for improving URTI symptoms, particularly cough frequency and cough severity
  • Comparisons with placebo are more limited, and require more high quality, placebo controlled trials

How will this study now potentially change things?

There are currently very few effective options that clinicians can prescribe for coughs and colds. This now means that Honey can be used.

But …

OK, here it comes.

The comparison here was between the effectiveness of Honey verses the effectiveness of the standard over the counter (OTC) remedies.

The problem with that is that the usual over the counter remedies are more or less useless. A 2014 Cochrane review concluded … “There is no good evidence for or against the effectiveness of OTC medicines in acute cough.

In other words, Honey does appear to help a bit better than your standard cough medicines which don’t really work at all.


We can only speculate.

Is there something in the honey or is the answer far simpler. Remember that honey is very viscous so it might just be that it coats an irritated throat and so helps.

Regardless of why it works, I was clearly wrong to dismiss it, it does really bring some relief. Be cautious, it is not a cure, it simply beings a bit of relief.

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