There may be hope for parents looking for alternatives to drug-laden cough syrup to calm their children's coughs -- and help might be as close as that golden nectar in the kitchen. Honey can soothe throats and calm coughs, according to a new study.
The study, published Monday in the Archives of Pediatrics and Adolescent Medicine, found that children who received a small dose of buckwheat honey before bedtime slept better and coughed less than those who received either a common over-the-counter cough suppressant (dextromethorphan) or nothing at all.
"This is the first time honey has been actually proven as a treatment," says lead study author Dr. Ian Paul, a researcher at Penn State College of Medicine. He adds that honey has been recommended for ages by grandparents in certain cultures.
The researchers enrolled 105 children, between ages 2 and 18, in their randomized, partially double-blind study. On the first night of the study, the children received no treatment. Parents then answered questions about their children's sleep and cough, as well as the quality of their own sleep. The second night, the children were given either honey-flavored cough syrup or honey -- or nothing at all. Parents then reanswered the questions in the survey.
Parents whose children received the honey rated their kids' sleep and symptoms as better -- and their own sleep as improved as well.
Paul says that the type of honey plays a role in the treatment.
"Darker honeys have more antioxidants than lighter honeys, and we wanted the best chance to see improvements," he says, noting that lighter honeys would probably also benefit kids. "At least locally [buckwheat honey] is available. I can get it here at the local supermarket."
Honey is also generally less expensive than over-the-counter medications, he says, and bring none of the side effects like dizziness or sleepiness.
The current study was inspired by an earlier investigation by Paul and his group. In 2004, they showed that the two most common active ingredients in cough syrup, dextromethorphan and diphenhydramine, had the same effectiveness in treating cough symptoms as a placebo ingredient.
Some of the kids who took honey did experience side effects, according to the study. The parents reported slightly more hyperactivity when their kids took honey, compared with when they took cough syrup.
But it's also interesting to note that this is not the first time the sweet stuff has been looked to as a remedy. Honey has been used since the time of the ancient Greeks and Egyptians to treat everything from wounds to insect bites. This usefulness can perhaps be attributed to the idea that an enzyme that bees add to the nectar produces hydrogen peroxide, an antibacterial agent.
For coughs and sore throats, it may be the stickiness and viscosity of honey that makes it work well.
"It has long been known that demulcents [like honey] can soothe irritated mucous membranes and thereby remove the irritation that is fueling the cough reflex," says Paul Doering, co-director of the Drug Information and Pharmacy Resource Center at the University of Florida.
"This explains the popularity of the so-called 'cough drops' that we all were given as children," he says, adding that the cough syrups serve a similar purpose: they lubricate the throat, thus reducing irritation. "The immediate relief that one experiences when swallowing that dose of cough syrup is attributable to the viscous vehicle and not the medicine itself."
Other pediatricians warn that there is a minimum age when honey is appropriate. Only children 2 and older participated in the study.
"Pediatricians do not recommend using honey in any situation -- whether it be to eat or to relieve a cough in children younger than 1 because of the risk of botulism," says Dr. Ari Brown, a pediatrician in private practice in Austin, Texas, explaining that botulism spores in honey can harm infants.
Brown says that even if honey is eventually shown to have little effectiveness, it certainly will not hurt -- and it can make parents feel as if they're doing something.
"It's benign, and as opposed to standard cough medicine, it tastes good," she says. "But the authors admit that the improvement in symptoms may simply be attributable to the length of time a child has symptoms of cough and that the common cold will improve over time anyway."
Doering says that since the U.S. Food and Drug Administration's recent recommendation that cough and cold medicines not be given to children under 6 years old, this new research may calm the nerves of parents who wonder what to give their children.
"I believe that recommending honey as a cough medicine has merits. It provides a safe option to using chemical based options," he says, adding that honey is part of a trend of recommending more commonplace traditional remedies for ailments.
"We are in an age of newfound caution when it comes to dosing our kids for minor illnesses," says Doering. "Personally, as a pharmacist, I always feel uncomfortable recommending a chemical solution to every ill that comes along."