Take the 2-minute tour ×
Skeptics Stack Exchange is a question and answer site for scientific skepticism. It's 100% free, no registration required.

A friend of mine insists that downing honey by the heaping tablespoon at the first sign of a cold will alleviate the symptoms, shorten the duration of the cold, or prevent it entirely - any and all of the above. I have found a few sites online (that are rinky-dinky to the point where they aren't worth linking to) that tout honey similarly as the magical cold cure. Is it really better than pharmaceutical remedies? If not, is it better than not using a remedy at all?

share|improve this question
    
There is also the "propolis" variant. Somehow it has anti-septic properties (how would that help with cold, though, is never explained). –  Sklivvz Sep 1 '11 at 13:23
    
From the Mayo Clinic regarding sore throats: "Regardless of the cause of your sore throat, at-home care strategies usually provide temporary relief. Try these strategies: ... Comforting foods and beverage. Warm liquids — broth, caffeine-free tea or warm water with honey — and cold treats such as ice pops can soothe a sore throat." –  Beofett Sep 1 '11 at 13:28
    
Anecdotally, honey at the very least improves the symptoms. Too busy @work to look up research but it works for me and was officially recommended by every doctor I had in my life to relieve sore throat and cough. –  DVK Sep 1 '11 at 15:09
2  
Listen to Penn Jillette - about 3m40s in - complain about how the phrase "at the first sign of a cold" makes the medical claim unfalsifiable. If you don't get a bad cold you ascribe the benefits to the treatment. If you do get a bad cold, you must have taken the treatment too late or for too short a time. –  Oddthinking Sep 4 '11 at 1:19
add comment

3 Answers

up vote 3 down vote accepted

Summary

I found no evidence for honey helping colds. Cochrane found limited evidence for honey helping in acute coughs in children, and no evidence for honey helping chronic coughs in children.

Cochrane Meta-Analyses

The Cochrane Collaboration do meta-analyses of health studies - they gather all of the published scientific evidence on a topic, and use careful statistical techniques to try to work out which way the evidence points.

While they don't have a general purpose study on honey's affect on the common cold, there were two studies of honey's affect on children with coughs - one for acute and one for chronic.

Acute Coughs

In the first analysis, they could only find one small study with any good evidence:

A review of one small randomised controlled trial showed that honey was significantly better than no treatment for the relief of cough, reducing bothersome cough, improving child's sleep; but no better than 'no treatment' in reducing the severity of cough and parent's sleep.

Note the comparison here is to "no treatment" rather than placebo or regular cough medicine.

The effects of honey on symptom relief and sleep quality did not differ from those of dextromethorphan, which is a common ingredient in cough medications. Parents of five children assigned to honey and two assigned to dextromethorphan reported their children suffered from insomnia, hyperactivity and nervousness. However, as with other medications, its benefit should be considered alongside the adverse effects.

They emphasized:

This review has a limitation in that the results were obtained from a single study involving a relatively small number of children.

Chronic Cough

In the second analysis, they looked for the affect on chronic non-specific coughs, which were defined as:

a dry, non-productive cough with no known cause lasting longer than four consecutive weeks

Four weeks is a long time - this is beyond your typical common cold.

What they found was that there was no good evidence either way for chronic coughs.

No randomised controlled trials were found to be applicable to this review, primarily due to the participants in the studies not fulfilling the inclusion criteria.

share|improve this answer
    
Cochrane has skipped and excluded better research papers from their "review" than the ones they cite, such as archpedi.jamanetwork.com/article.aspx?articleid=571638. There have been several studies of hundreds of kids at a time and instead they cite a single study with a woefully insufficient sample size. I have to conclude that they found what they wanted to find, by design. That being said, the links above are dead so I can't do a more thorough assessment. –  Russell Steen Jun 20 '12 at 11:21
    
@Russell: First things first: I have updated the broken links. –  Oddthinking Jun 20 '12 at 13:02
    
Awesome, I'll go read them. Thank you. –  Russell Steen Jun 20 '12 at 13:08
    
@Russell: The example you gave (Paul, 2007) was one of only two that made it through the inclusion criteria for the first (acute cough) study. So, no, they didn't skip or exclude that one. Now that the links are fixed, have a look at their method and see if you still think it is deliberately biased. –  Oddthinking Jun 20 '12 at 13:10
    
Aren't the Cochrane reviews supposed to exlude methodologically flawed studies? –  Tjaart Jun 21 '12 at 22:58
add comment

Cough is certainly a symptom of a cold, and honey has been found to help with that: http://www.mayoclinic.com/health/honey/AN01799 and http://www.umm.edu/altmed/articles/pharyngitis-000129.htm both cite a 2007 (peer reviewed and published) study.

In fact, in the study, honey appeared to be as effective as the cough suppressant dextromethorphan in typical over-the-counter doses.

share|improve this answer
    
Is there any evidence for other symptoms, or general immune response? –  Abby T. Miller Sep 2 '11 at 18:45
    
Not that I can find Abby. I actually read an article for research showing it did not help against general allergies, but I've had trouble finding it again. There's a lot out there about possible antibacterial benefits of a specific honey for wound care, but that did not seem on topic for the question so I didn't include it. –  Russell Steen Sep 2 '11 at 18:53
    
@RussellSteen Bee pollen is generally the one that I hear about with regards to allergies with the caveat that it needs to be from local bees as opposed to just general bee pollen. The same applies to honey, but it usually doesn't get recommended as often compared to bee pollen. –  rob Jun 20 '12 at 13:09
add comment

The idea behind eating honey is kind of like gradually vaccinating the body against allergens, a process called immunotherapy. Honey contains a variety of the same pollen spores that give allergy sufferers so much trouble when flowers and grasses are in bloom. Introducing these spores into the body in small amounts by eating honey should make the body accustomed to their presence and decrease the chance an immune system response like the release of histamine will occur [source: AAFP]. Since the concentration of pollen spores found in honey is low -- compared to, say, sniffing a flower directly -- then the production of antibodies shouldn't trigger symptoms similar to an allergic reaction. Ideally, the honey-eater won't have any reaction at all.

http://health.howstuffworks.com/diseases-conditions/allergies/allergy-treatments/local-honey-for-allergies2.htm

share|improve this answer
1  
This is a step-up from your previous answer (which you might like to delete) as it has two references. However, they are not great references at all. The first isn't enough detail - I don't know where to read this in "AAFP". The second doesn't support your claim with empirical evidence. In fact, its opening line says it all: "There have been no peer-reviewed scientific studies that have conclusively proven whether honey actually reduces allergies. Almost all evidence regarding the immunizing effects of eating honey is anecdotal." I suggest you delete this answer too. –  Oddthinking Sep 4 '11 at 0:50
    
thanks for your help, i'm new at this as you can see haha. How do I delete my posts? I only see options to edit it –  pmilb Sep 6 '11 at 14:54
add comment

Your Answer

 
discard

By posting your answer, you agree to the privacy policy and terms of service.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.