Honey: The Sweetest Medicine?

honey, substitute medicine for children, healthy honeyParents of children who are coughing due to a cold or flu may want to try using honey to relieve their children’s symptoms.
Over-the-counter cold and flu remedies should not be given to children under the age 12 — because they have not been proven safe or effective for them (see our article “The Facts About Medication for Colds and Flu”).

A 2012 study suggests that giving children honey before bedtime can give them relief and help them (and their parents!) get a good night of sleep. However, honey should not be given to infants less than a year old because it may cause infant botulism, a rare but life-threatening type of food poisoning.[1] [2]

This August 2012 study by Dr. Herman Avner Cohen of Tel Aviv University and his colleagues examined the effect of honey on night-time cough in 300 children, ages 1 to 5 (most were about 2 and a half).[3] The children all had respiratory tract infections and night-time cough for less than a week during the study. The children were given single doses of one of three types of honey (eucalyptus, citrus, or labiatae) or a placebo of date extract shortly before bedtime. This was a double-blind, randomized controlled trial, which means that the children were randomly assigned to the treatments or  placebo and that parents, doctors, and patients did not know which treatment (or placebo) the child received. A survey was given to parents on 2 consecutive days-when no medication had been given the previous evening, and the following day. The results showed that all three types of honey were better than the placebo in reducing how often the children coughed, the severity of their cough, in making the cough less bothersome, and in improving child and parent sleep quality.

The researchers noted that it’s not clear why honey improves cough symptoms for children, but that honey “has been found to have both antioxidant and antimicrobial properties.” The study had several limitations, however. Only one dose of honey was given on only one evening, and multiple doses might have shown different results. In addition, some of the outcomes measured-such as how bothersome the cough is-were subjective and responses came from a survey parents filled out themselves, a method that is not always accurate.  However, since the parents did not know whether the child received honey or a sweet placebo, that should not have biased the results.

A similar study by Dr. Ian Paul and researchers at Pennsylvania State University was published  in 2007.[4] Like the Israeli study, this study surveyed parents of children on two consecutive days to see if honey improved cough symptoms, and the same outcomes were measured. However, the Penn State researchers compared buckwheat honey to no treatment rather than a placebo, and to honey-flavored dextromethorphan (DM), the medication found in many cough and cold treatments for children and adults. Parents of 105 children ages 2 to 18 were surveyed, and the results showed that both honey and DM were better than no treatment. Honey was rated as more effective than DM, but the difference was not significant and could have been due to chance.

Although the reason why honey is so effective in treating coughs is not yet clear, these studies show that this sweet, natural food might be the best medicine for children whose coughing is making it difficult to sleep.

All articles are reviewed and approved by Dr. Diana Zuckerman and other senior staff. 

  1. Hoarau G, Pelloux I, Gayot A, Wroblewski I, Popoff MR, Mazuet C, Maurin M, Croizé J. Two cases of type A infant botulism in Grenoble, France: no honey for infants. European Journal of Pediatrics. Mar 2012;171(3):589-591.
  2. Smith JK, Burns S, Cunningham S, Freeman J, McLellan A, McWilliam K. The hazards of honey: Infantile botulism. BMJ Case Reports. Sep 2010.
  3. Cohen HA, Rozen J, Kristal H, Laks Y, Berkovitch M, Uziel Y, Kozer E, Pomeranz A, Efrat H. Effect of Honey on Nocturnal Cough and Sleep Quality: A Double-blind, Randomized, Placebo-Controlled Study. Pediatrics. August 6, 2012. Epub ahead of print.
  4. Paul IM, Beiler J, McMonagle A, Shaffer ML, Duda L, Berlin CM Jr. Effect of honey, dextromethorphan, and no treatment on nocturnal cough and sleep quality for coughing children and their parents. Archives of Pediatric and Adolescent Medicine. Dec 2007;161(12):1140-1146.