Sweet success: The healing power of honey

Forget a spoonful of sugar to help the medicine go down; did you know you can use honey to help soothe a dry cough?

Honey’s history

Honey’s medicinal use goes back to ancient times. The Egyptians used it to dress wounds, help prevent infection and make ointments for skin diseases. 

And even now, some parents give their children a teaspoon or two of honey to help suppress a dry cough and afford the family with a good night’s sleep, and it seems they may be onto something.

The World Health Organization recommends further research into honey as a potential cough suppressant in developing countries as it’s accessible and affordable. 

There’s mounting evidence to suggest it could be more effective than some over-the-counter medicines.

How does it work?

The sweet secret to honey’s success is not truly understood, but there are many theories.

Bupa’s National Medical Director and GP Dr Tim Ross says most dry, irritative coughs are due to a level of inflammation in the airways.

“Inflammation in itself involves a number of chemicals and activation of cells in the airway and it is quite likely that the honey, which is viscous, is good at coating the area.”

“Often the thing that makes you cough at night is breathing because the cool air going past tickles up the inflammation and makes you cough.”

“The honey is providing a physical barrier that’s quite sticky and viscous and sits there, and there’s probably properties in the honey that are helping stabilise those chemicals.”

Honey is also believed to have antiseptic and antibiotic properties, and acts as an anti-inflammatory on some parts of the body.
little boy blowing his nose

Honey vs cough syrup

Some research shows honey can actually be more effective than over-the-counter cough medicines. 

“My experience with cough medicines is they’re famously unsuccessful.

 “Honey is good for you from a nutritional point of view, as well as hopefully helping with your cough,” Says Dr Ross.
“If there is a suggestion it’s not going to do any harm, give it a go.”

Avoid honey if...

Honey should never be given to those under 12 months because of the rare but serious risk of botulism spores in the honey, which a baby’s immune system may not be equipped to cope with.

Dr Ross says it’s also important not to suppress a wet cough, as it’s the body’s natural way of getting rid of phlegm. 

“If a cough is persistent and lasts longer than 5-7 days you should go to see a GP,” says Dr Ross.

Dr Tim Ross’ advice

  • If you have a dry cough, take 1-2 teaspoons of honey every few hours and particularly before bed.
  • Continue using honey as needed if effective.
  • See a doctor if your cough doesn’t go away.
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