Honey tea

Can honey relieve the symptoms of a cold?

Posted by for Wellbeing

New research shows this natural remedy might be the best way to beat a cold – but why is honey so good at soothing sore throats? 

December 2020 is turning out to be a cold old month, with temperatures across the country this morning wavering around 1C. And what comes with wintery weather (apart from glorious snow flurries, mulled wine and yule logs?), the common winter cold. Snotty, sometimes fevery and most definitely tiring – it’s something we’ve all battled in the past. 

And we all have unique and individual remedies when it comes to fighting off colds, whether that’s eating a certain variety of soup or sipping a special drink. But there’s one common natural cold reliever that the majority of us agree on: honey. Whether your grandma fed it to you in tea with a squeeze of lemon or you take it by the tablespoon when the sniffles strike, the natural nectar is known for its soothing properties.

Confirming what we’ve long suspected, though, there’s now research which proves taking honey isn’t just a comforting placebo. A study from the University of Oxford showed that it is more effective at beating respiratory tract infections than commonly prescribed medicines. 

Researchers, who published the paper this summer, learned that honey is most beneficial when it comes to soothing the throat, improving cough frequency and severity in those who used it.

Why is honey good for colds?

“Although honey is almost entirely made up of sugars, it is also full of amino acids, flavonoids, vitamins and minerals,” explains Dr Claudia Pastides, GP for Babylon Healthcare. These compounds are all known for their antioxidant, anti-inflammatory, antimicrobial and antiviral effects, helping to relieve inflammation in the throat and upper airways.

“Another way honey might help is by naturally causing saliva and mucus to be secreted when you put it in your mouth,” Dr Pastides adds. “This could relieve that dry tickly feeling you get in the back of your throat or with a dry cough.”

Honey might be one of the most effective cough relievers

Is medicine good for colds?

In the new paper, the researchers found that honey was better for relieving colds than medicines which are commonly prescribed to deal with them. But the other benefit here is that using honey to help with coughs causes less harm. That’s because antibiotics are often prescribed for common colds which “is a particular problem, because they are ineffective, and contribute to antimicrobial resistance,” the study reads.

“What you need most when you’ve got a cold is something to relieve those horrid symptoms and honey is a helpful drug-free option with no side effects,” agrees Dr Pastides. “With antibiotic resistance on the up, it is important to remember that an otherwise healthy child or adult can usually fight off a sore throat or cough without an antibiotic prescription. But of course if you are feeling very unwell, getting worse or have any worries – always speak to your doctor.” 

However, there is sometimes a time and a place for pharmaceuticals if you have a cold, reminds Dr Pastides. “Honey hasn’t been proven to be more effective than medicine for all cold-related symptoms. For example, paracetamol and ibuprofen are great for a headache or sore throat, providing quick pain relief – in a way honey cannot.”

How much and what type of honey should you have to relieve a cold?

If you’re looking for a natural fix to relieve a sore throat, then honey looks like the answer. The good news is that it doesn’t have to be an expensive honey, like manuka, to do the job. In the latest paper, the researchers compared different varieties of honey and there is no consensus as to one being better than the other. The benefits from honey were seen with all different types of honey, including wildflower, eucalyptus and citrus honey.

As for dosage, studies have used anywhere between one teaspoon to 25g of honey. According to Dr Pastides, the NHS recommends one or two teaspoons of honey in a mug of hot water, with a squeeze of lemon.

Honey is safe to use in adults and children over the age of one. 

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Chloe Gray

Chloe Gray is the senior writer for stylist.co.uk's fitness brand Strong Women. When she's not writing or lifting weights, she's most likely found practicing handstands, sipping a gin and tonic or eating peanut butter straight out of the jar (not all at the same time).