Honey should be the go-to for easing coughs, scientists urge

·3 min read
honey dipper and bread
Many turn to honey as a natural alternative to sugar. (Getty Images)

Whether spread on toast, drizzled on porridge or simply eaten off a spoon, many turn to honey to satisfy their sugar cravings.

Honey has long been praised for its antibacterial properties, with old wives’ tales swearing by the sweet stuff to relieve a sore throat.

A review of 14 studies by the University of Oxford now suggests it should be the go-to when it comes to easing upper respiratory symptoms, like a cough.

Read more: Manuka honey: what are the health benefits?

Honey is ‘cheap, easy to access and has limited harms’

Honey has long been used as a home remedy to treat coughs and colds. However, studies into its effectiveness have largely excluded adults.

In 2010, scientists from Shahid Sadoughi University in Israel gave 139 coughing children either 2.5ml of honey or the over-the-counter cough suppressants dextromethorphan and diphenhydramine.

Twenty-four hours later, those given honey saw their “cough frequency score” go down significantly more than the other youngsters’.

To uncover any benefits among adults, the Oxford scientists looked at 14 studies with more than 1,700 participants between them.

The trials compared regular honey to “usual care”, like antihistamines, expectorants – drugs that clear mucus, cough suppressants and painkillers.

Read more: Honey dressings could ward off infections after an operation

Results – published in the BMJ Evidence Based Medicine – revealed honey was more effective than usual care when it came to improving symptoms, particularly the frequency and severity of coughing.

Two of the studies suggested honey cut symptoms short by between one and two days.

The scientists pointed out only two of the 14 studies compared the nectar against a placebo, with further investigation therefore being required before definitive conclusions can be drawn.

Nevertheless, the team has urged people to opt for the natural alternative over cough suppressants.

“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.”

Read more: Can old wives tales really help fight colds?

The scientists have also urged doctors to recommend honey as an alternative to antibiotics, which are often incorrectly prescribed for viral infections, despite only being effective against certain bacteria.

“Upper respiratory tract infections (URTIs) are the most frequent reason for antibiotic prescription,” they wrote.

“Since the majority of URTIs are viral, antibiotic prescription is both ineffective and inappropriate.”

Inappropriate prescriptions contribute to antibiotic resistance, which the World Health Organization has called “one of the biggest threats to global health”.

A lack of alternatives, combined with a desire to maintain a good doctor-patient relationship, means medics may feel pressured into doling out antibiotics for viral infections, wrote the scientists.

Shot of illness young woman coughing in the street.
Honey was found to be particularly effective at easing coughs. (Getty Images)

The benefits of Manuka honey

The scientists noted the quality of honey varies. Only Manuka varieties, for example, contain the uniquely antibacterial ingredient methylglyoxal.

In 2014, scientists from Nagasaki University in Japan found Manuka honey inhibited the reproduction of a flu virus in the laboratory.

Three years later, a team from the University of Algarve noted it was effective against the chickenpox virus when tested on human skin cancer cells.

A more recent study also suggested Manuka honey could ward off infections after an operation.

Newcastle University scientists alternated eight “nano layers” of medical-grade Manuka honey with polymers – a material made of long, repeating chains of molecules.

Manuka honey has a negative charge, while polymers are positive. Together, these created an “electrostatic nanocoating” that inhibited the growth of bacteria on surgical meshes.

While this may sound promising, the honey was medical grade and therefore had any impurities removed. This makes it distinctly different from the products available in the supermarket.

Despite honey’s benefits, it is important not to overindulge, with all varieties containing around 5g of sugar per teaspoon.

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