Can honey relieve the symptoms of cough and cold?

A recent study and meta-analysis asks if honey is an effective cough remedy and other symptoms of infections in the upper respiratory tract. Overall , the authors conclude, honey is “superior to usual symptom enhancement care.” But, because data is scarce, concerns remain.

Honey may improve symptoms of a cold, though supporting data are lacking.
Honey may improve symptoms of a cold, though supporting data are lacking.

Infections of the upper respiratory tract (URTIs) are extremely prevalent like common cold.

URTIs are “the most frequent reason for antibiotic prescription,” according to the scientists behind the latest study, which appears in the journal BMJ Evidence-Based Medicine.

But most URTIs are viral, and so antibiotics can not help. Rhinovirus alone accounts for an estimated 80 percent of all peak seasonal respiratory infections.

A lack of appropriate therapies for URTIs is a growing problem in an age of antibiotic resistance. The World Health Organization (WHO) considers antibiotic resistance to be “one of today’s major threats to global health, food security and development,” which is why alternative approaches to these and other infections are urgently needed.

The common cold is far from life-threatening, but successful treatment of it could delay the antibiotic resistance “slow-motion pandemic.”

Could honey be the answer?

Many people seek solace in the honey when endureing a cough or cold. While this treatment is common, there is significant lack of scientific evidence of its efficacy.

The latest systematic review and meta-analysis aims to fill the study void.

The team delved into established results to bring the honey through its paces. They selected related studies involving people of all ages and at any location. All of the studies examined compared honey to at least one other intervention: no medication, no routine care, or placebo.

The writers, in their study, described URTIs as “acute respiratory tract infections, including acute cough, colds and influenza-like disease, but excluding bronchitis or other lower respiratory tract infections.”

Does honey work?

In total, the paper quest yielded only 14 valid studies; data from only 12 studies could be compiled into a meta-analysis of the 14. In addition to data analysis by the scientists, they also measured the possibility of bias from each sample.

The meta-analysis findings have been largely optimistic but by no means definitive. The authors write: When trying to determine the effects of honey versus placebo

“Two of the three studies comparing honey with placebo indicated a beneficial effect of honey, but overall, we don’t have a strong evidence base from honey to matched placebo comparisons.”

However, the findings were somewhat clearer when contrasting honey with standard treatment. According to the doctors, “Honey was associated with a significantly greater decrease in combined symptom score, frequency of cough and severity of cough.”

Also the authors conclude that although the normal care approaches varied widely among the researchers, they were all “similarly ineffective.”

A number of limitations

There were a variety of factors that impeded the ability of this study to draw firm conclusions. Overall, the issues related not to the methodology of this study, but to the consistency of the studies available to the team for review.

For example, when they analyzed the risk of bias of the included studies, nine out of 14 were at risk of at least one type of bias; and seven of these were at risk of more than one type of bias.

Nine of the research had, apart from this, only enrolled children as participants, so the findings may not be relevant to adults.

A large number of the studies included also did not use pure honey: one used Honitus syrup, which has a honey base but contains herbs; two used Grintuss syrup, which is a honey-including cough suppressant; two combined honey with coffee; and one mixed honey, coffee, and milk.

Designing a placebo intervention also caused some difficulties. Researchers need to ensure participants are unable to say whether they are getting a placebo or the experimental test, which was honey in this case.

If honey’s physical properties help relieve symptoms, such as cough, any related compound can also mitigate the symptoms , making it a weak placebo.

Overall, the clearest point this review makes is that more research is needed before we can draw conclusions about honey and URTIs. While URTIs are relatively mild in the global scheme of things, their relation to overprescribing antibiotics makes honey worthy of further scrutiny.

And because honey is easily available, normal, and healthy for most adults and children over 1, if it decreases the number of prescriptions for antibiotics it will be an all-around win.

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