Adding a bit of this to your tea may be better for the common cold than drugs

When you are feeling down with a bad cough or a cold, you may brew up a cup of warm tea with honey to help you feel better. New research published in BMJ Evidence-Based Medicine suggests that this home remedy may actually be more effective at treating cold symptoms than antibiotics and over the counter medicines.

“Honey is a frequently used lay remedy that is well known to patients,” the researchers wrote. “It is also cheap, easy to access and has limited harms.”

The systematic review looked at 14 clinical trials where they compared honey with usual care, such as antihistamines, expectorants, cough suppressants and pain killers. 

The conclusion was that honey seemed more effective than the usual care at improving cough and cold symptoms. Researchers noted that two studies even showed symptoms lasting one to two days shorter for those who were treated with honey. 

Pritish Tosh, M.D. from Mayo Clinic agreed, noting that previous studies have shown honey to be an effective alternative to treating cold and cough symptoms. 

“In one study, children ages 1 to 5 with upper respiratory tract infections were given up to two teaspoons of honey at bedtime. The honey seemed to reduce nighttime coughing and improve sleep” she said. “In fact, in the study, honey appeared to be as effective as a common cough suppressant ingredient, dextromethorphan, in typical over-the-counter doses. Since honey is low-cost and widely available, it might be worth a try.”

Epidemiologist Gideon Meyerowitz-Katz said more research and studies need to be conducted before a definite conclusion can be made.

“With meta-analyses, it’s all about the included studies. If the literature you’re relying on is bad, you can’t really say much about the subject except that you need more research,” he said. “In this review, most of the included research seems to have worrying inconsistencies and some outright mistakes, which means we have to be really careful about reading too much into the results.” 

For example, the researchers themselves pointed out that only two of the 14 studies involved a placebo. It’s likely that a separate study would need to be conducted to understand the true outcome.

“The meta-analysis itself was done well, but the quality of the studies on honey for URTI/cough seems to just be really low. That means that we can only really say that we aren’t sure yet if honey helps, because we haven’t properly answered the question,” Meyerowitz-Katz said.

Past research has shown that honey is effective in soothing cough and cold symptoms. In fact, some studies have shown that honey has the power to kill bacteria, such as E. coli and salmonella. Manuka honey from New Zealand, is also capable of fighting off staph and digestive bacteria which causes peptic ulcers. 

If the conclusion of the systematic review, proves to be true, honey could be a great alternative to antibiotics, which often come with a slew of negative side effects and can build up antibiotic resistance. 

“Since the majority of upper respiratory tract infections (URTIs) are viral, antibiotic prescription is both ineffective and inappropriate,” write the researchers. “However, a lack of effective alternatives, as well as a desire to preserve the patient-doctor relationship, both contribute to antibiotic over-prescription.”

The authors concluded that the benefits of honey seem to outweigh those of antibiotics, even without further research.

“When clinicians wish to prescribe for URTI, we would recommend honey as an alternative to antibiotics,” researchers noted. “Honey is more effective and less harmful than usual care alternatives and avoids causing harm through antimicrobial resistance.”