Honey found to soothe children’s coughs

I don’t have anything against pharmaceutical medicine per se, but if there’s a less-toxic, effective and accessible alternative available, then I’ll opt for this every time. So, I was very interested to learn this week of a newly published study which assessed the effect of honey on childhood cough [1].

The study involved more than 100 children aged 2 to 18. Each of these had an ‘upper respiratory tract infection’ ” cough and/or cold to you and I ” for 7 days or less. Each child was treated with either some buckwheat honey, a conventional drug used to treat cough (dextromorphan) or nothing. The effect of these interventions was assessed with regard to cough frequency, cough severity, how bothersome the cough was, and the sleep quality of both the child and their parents.

The researchers found that the honey treatment led to significant improvement in symptoms and sleep compared to no treatment. They also found that treatment with dextromorphan was no better than giving nothing at all.

How honey exerts its cough-suppressant properties is not known for sure. One idea is that honey contains substances with anti-microbial (anti-infective) properties. This concept is explored in more depth in a piece pasted in below this one.

Another way in which honey may help is by soothing the irritated ‘mucus membranes’ at the back of the throat that cause coughing.

Whatever the explanation, it seems that dosing kids with honey is likely to be better than doing nothing when they have a cough. The dosing used in this study was half a teaspoon for children aged 2-5, one teaspoon for children aged 6-11 and two teaspoons for children aged 12-18.

In the interests of transparency, I feel compelled to point out that this study was paid for by the National Honey Board, an industry-funded agency of the U.S. Department of Agriculture, though the group had no influence over the study design or the data it produced.


Paul IM, et al. Effect of Honey, Dextromethorphan, and No Treatment on Nocturnal Cough and Sleep Quality for Coughing Children and Their Parents. Arch Pediatr Adolesc Med. 2007;161(12):1140-1146.

The health benefits of honey – 26 January 2003

Before the advent of modern medicine, traditional methods of healing using food and herbs were all the rage. Despite the fact that such folk medicine has become overrun by high-tech and drug-oriented health care, a few homespun remedies survive. One natural concoction that appears to have endured is honey and lemon ” a traditional elixir that is reputed to relieve sore throats common at this time of year. The presence of lemon juice in this brew makes sense as the vitamin C it contains is known to have immune-stimulating and anti-infective effects in the body. However, at first sight, the honey component is harder to make a case for. However, the fact that honey’s use as a natural remedy dates back to the ancient Egyptians suggests there might be something in it. Recent scientific evidence suggests that honey has real medicinal power in the body, and may help hive off sore throats and other infections.

Sore throats can be caused by both viral and bacterial organisms. Most sore throats start out as viral infections, against which antibiotics are quite ineffectual. Antibiotics do have their use, however, for bacterial organisms. Bacteria might be the first germ to take up residence at the back of the throat, though commonly they superimpose themselves on top of a viral contamination. The most common species of bacterium known to cause sore throats is Streptococcus pyogenes. Because this germ can lead on to problems such as rheumatic fever and inflammation in the kidneys, treatment with antibiotics is important. However, laboratory experiments have found that honey has the ability to inhibit Streptococcus pyogenes. It is not beyond the realm of possibility that sipping honey and lemon at the first sign of a sore throat may help keep the potentially hazardous Streptococcal bug at bay.

Another organism that honey has been shown to help combat is Helicobacter pylori (H. pylori). This bacterium was discovered 20 years ago and is now well-recognised as a causative factor in ulcers that affect the stomach and duodenum (the part of the digestive tract immediately after the stomach). Manuka honey, a particular brand of honey hailing from New Zealing, has been shown kill H. pylori in the testtube. While conventional treatments for H. pylori exist, two or three teaspoons of Manuka honey incorporated in the diet each day can only help to rid H. pylori from the body and reduce the risk of re-infection. Anyone considering using Manuka honey for this purpose should opt for a brand labelled as UMF 10+. UMF stands for unique Manuka factor, the substance in Manuka that is believed to give it its bacterial-killing potential. Comvita and Medi Bee are two good brands to look out for.

The therapeutic benefits of honey appear to have applications not just inside the body, but outside too. Scientific studies have found that the application of honey can help resolve a variety of wounds including burns. Honey appears to have the ability to ward off wound infections, reduce inflammation and promote healing. In one case report in the scientific literautre, honey was used to successfully treat a wound infected with the antibiotic-resistant superbug MRSA (methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus arueus). The evidence suggests that as far a folk remedies go, honey really is the bee’s knees.

6 Responses to Honey found to soothe children’s coughs

  1. David Colquhoun 5 December 2007 at 10:29 pm #

    I think you forgot (along with thousands of media reports) to mention that the paper also found no significant difference between honey and dextromethorphan. There is actually no evidence that honey (or anything else) helps much. I’ve done an analysis of this paper at http://dcscience.net/?p=209

    The press releases from U Penn and from JAMA were inaccurate spin and that may account for some of the bad reporting in the media

  2. New Zealand Honey Shop 6 December 2007 at 8:41 pm #

    If there was no significant difference between honey and dextromethorphan, then surely it is good for honey to be considered, as it is easier to give children something they like the taste of, versus ‘medicine’. It is also something that is more readily available – many households will have some type of honey in their cupboard that can be used in the first instance.

    It should be noted, even though this study has involved children above the age of 2 years, that honey should not be given to infants.

    On the subject of the UMF manuka honey mentioned in the older article above: For people interested in it, it is more important now to look carefully for the ‘UMF’ trademark on the actual label of the honey, not just in the advertising. There are a growing number of cases of passing off of ordinary manuka honey that doesn’t contain the extra beneficial properties. Even some health food shops are at fault, though several genuine brands of UMF honey are available.

  3. Megan 7 December 2007 at 1:16 pm #

    What a surprise! I treated my son’s coughs with honey; my mother treated mine with honey; her mother treated her’s with honey, and MER mother treated HERS with honey.

    Unless research is attempting to discover WHY these things work, why on earth waste much money on what, to mothers across the nation, is blindingly obvious?

    Sorry to rant, but I’ve just read the latest entry about cholesterol, and the subject always has that effect on me!


  4. Mary Lawrence 7 December 2007 at 1:24 pm #

    So my mother was right after all – that hideous lemon glycerine & honey concoction she made me drink when I had a cough! I can’t abide honey now (unless eaten in Greece for some reason).

  5. Tiggy 9 December 2007 at 4:22 am #

    I use honey or half a teaspoon of olive oil – sometimes both. It helps ME or I wouldn’t bother. Isn’t there a difference between ‘dry’ and ‘wet’ coughs though? For ‘wet’ coughs, I use lemonade to break up the phlegm – this was my own discovery – fizzy lemonade with added lemon. Bubbles break up things. They are used to break up oil slicks.

    Indian families always make the kids drink some revolting turmeric mixture for coughs. I’m told it works if you can bear it.

  6. colette 9 November 2009 at 8:45 am #

    Apart from taking Active Manuka Honey myself, I apply it on my cat foot injury & it works wonders.

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