Life Wellbeing From alternative to mainstream: Honey is a ‘superior’ treatment for the common cold
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From alternative to mainstream: Honey is a ‘superior’ treatment for the common cold

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Oxford University scientists, in a systematic review of 14 randomised controlled trials, found that honey is one of the few treatments for symptoms of upper respiratory tract infections (URTIs) that actually works.

URTI are coughs and colds and “influenza-like illness”. These are the wearying winter bugs – not actual flu or bronchitis. The common cold is what it is. You feel a bit off, clog up during the night, fill a dozen hankies and you get over it.

Too many of us take our colds to the doctor, demanding antibiotics that won’t work – except to support the rise of the superbug. The more effective treatment is sitting in your pantry.

As the scientists put it, honey is “superior to usual care” for the improvement of URTI symptoms – particularly cough frequency and cough severity.

In fact, their paper suggests that honey isn’t merely the best option, it may be the only sensible option – but that conclusion is subject to gold-standard testing in the form of randomised double-blind clinical trials against a placebo.

And there’s some urgency in gaining that definitive stamp of approval,

A spoonful of sugar helps the medicine go down … because the medicine is a spoonful of sugar and an anti-microbial. Photo: Getty

As the researchers advise: “There are currently very few effective options that clinicians can prescribe for URTIs … Other medications for URTIs are ineffective and can have harmful side effects.”

 Wow! This is big news, right?

The Oxford meta-analysis is supported by a number of experiments with parents and their children that found honey does a better job alleviating coughs than popular remedies such as the cough suppressant dextromethorphan and the antihistamine best-known as Benadryl.

It’s old news. See here and here. But also see here for a study where results were mixed.

And it’s very old news indeed that honey has medicinal properties. People have been using it to treat wounds for more than five thousand years. It has a variety antimicrobial properties: the most commonly found is hydrogen peroxide produced by a honey enzyme.

You can find an interesting overview of honey’s medicinal and anti-microbial properties here.

As the Oxford researchers note: :”Honey is a well known traditional therapy for URTI symptoms.”

‘”Guidelines recommend it for acute cough in children, but the evidence base for honey use for other URTI symptoms and populations has not been evaluated.”

And so they evaluated some quality evidence

What appears to be motivating the Oxford research is the potential for honey to be adopted as “a widely available and cheap alternative to antibiotics.”

This is where the urgency lies. Antibiotic over-use is driving the rise of drug-resistant superbugs, especially in hospital and aged care settings.

In their introduction, the authors lay out a case as to why the world will be a better place if more doctors start prescribing a spoonful of honey instead of a bottle of pills for the common cold.

  • Upper respiratory tract infections are the most frequent reason for antibiotic prescription. Since the majority of URTIs are viral, antibiotic prescription is both ineffective and inappropriate.
  • However, a lack of effective alternatives, as well as a desire to preserve the patient–doctor relationship, both contribute to antibiotic over prescription.
  • Antibiotic overuse is a key driver of antimicrobial resistance, rated by the UK government as one of the top 10 risks facing Britain. (Not just Britain. See here for The New Daily’s report on why antibiotics may disappear altogether.)
  • Furthermore, drug resistant infections are associated with worse patient outcomes than antibiotic susceptible infections, underlining the impact of antimicrobial resistance on individual patients.

The short version: honey can help save the world from superbugs, it won’t give you the runs (as you get with antibiotics), and you don’t need a spoonful of sugar to help it go down