Dr. Lawrence D. Rosen
Winnie-the-Pooh had it figured out—it’s all about the honey. People over many centuries have gathered this tasty, sticky delight to treat everything from coughs to sore throats to skin infections. Honey may, in fact, be nature’s safest over-the-counter cough and cold treatment and its most potent antibiotic—all without the potentially dangerous side effects of conventional medications. Here are some of my favorite medical uses for honey:
1. Cough: Coughing is the body’s way of clearing irritated airways to help your child breathe more comfortably. However, persistent coughing may only irritate the airways and throat further. All that hacking prevents a restful night’s sleep, something parents everywhere want for their little ones. With continuous coughing, it’s no wonder parents reach for whatever can ease the symptoms. However, the AAP and CDC have warned that codeine and dextromethorphan, two common cough medicine ingredients, offer little help and potential for great harm for young children. Complications such as drowsiness or hyperactivity are possible, and more serious adverse effects, like respiratory depression, can happen with overdosing. Many parents ask me about natural alternatives for persistent coughs that interfere with sleep or activities. I turn to honey, demonstrated to be safe and effective for pediatric coughs. You can mix one teaspoon in some water/herbal tea or give it straight up every 2-4 hours. You can also use a blend of honey and homeopathic medicines like Boiron’s Chestal cough syrup. Do not use honey in babies under a year, as they are at risk for botulism.
2. Sore throat: I’ve always found honey to be particularly soothing and appealing for kids (and adults) with sore throats. It can be given the same way as noted above for coughs. One study showed how effective Malaysian Tualang honey was for pain and healing after tonsillectomy. If you’ve ever had your tonsils out, you’ll agree that if honey worked for this condition, it will likely do the job for any run-of-the-mill viral pharyngitis. While some evidence suggests certain types of honey may have anti-strep activity, I don’t recommend honey alone as a treatment for streptococcal sore throats. I do, however, recommend it as a complement to antibiotics.
3. Seasonal allergies: The theory is fascinating. Eating a small amount of honey made by bees pollinating local flowers may prevent seasonal allergies due those same pollens. The idea has to do with immune system tolerance, or the concept that exposure to a small amount of an offending substance can lead to tolerance of large amounts of the same substance. But does it work? In some cases, yes. A recent study looked at response of those with birch pollen allergies to preventive birch pollen honey (BPH). During the allergy season, patients who ingested incremental amounts of BPH preventively reported significantly fewer symptoms and used 50% less antihistamines. You first have to find a farm or market that sells locally pollinated honey (or become a beekeeper) and then give your child a small amount—even a ½ tsp daily should suffice—daily for at least a month before the allergy season begins. Watch for signs of allergies (runny or stuffy nose, itchy eyes, cough) when you start and stop the honey if those symptoms worsen with ingestion.
4. Impetigo: One of the most common skin infections in children, impetigo usually presents as crusty, weepy yellowish-brown lesions in and around the nose and mouth. Bacteria typically present include staphylococcal and streptococcal species. While these bacteria can peacefully coexist on healthy skin, any time there’s a scrape or cut leading to skin breakdown, these pesky germs can wreak havoc. Conventionally, topical or systemic antibiotics are prescribed, but more and more studies are proving that honey, nature’s antibiotic, may be a safer and equally effective choice. Certain types, like New Zealand’s Manuka honey, have been shown to be very effective when applied topically to infected wounds. Turns out that the most common bacterial infections are quite sensitive to antibacterial compounds in the Manuka honey. Look for brands like Manuka Health New Zealand Ltd’s “Active MGO 400+” and apply three or four times a day to the infected skin area.
This material is adapted from Dr. Rosen’s book, “Treatment Alternatives for Children.”