Natural remedy fights colds, cancer, asthma, and more, study shows

By John Murphy
Published August 28, 2020

Key Takeaways

In a recent systematic review published in BMJ Evidence-Based Medicine, researchers at Oxford University found that honey is more effective than antibiotics for treating the common cold (ie, upper respiratory tract infections). So, doctors should be prescribing honey instead of antibiotics.

Here’s the latest news about that—and about honey’s other health benefits. 

Honey for coughs and colds

Although honey is a common home remedy for coughs, sore throat, and the common cold, patients often request a prescription medication for these ailments. And many doctors comply.

“Upper respiratory tract infections (URTIs) are the most frequent reason for antibiotic prescription. Since the majority of URTIs are viral, antibiotic prescription is both ineffective, and inappropriate,” wrote the authors of this study.

Overprescribing antibiotics for URTIs exacerbates antimicrobial resistance, the researchers noted. “There is a need for effective alternatives to antibiotic prescribing,” they wrote.

Study coauthor Charlotte Albury, DPhil, MSc, is a research fellow in Health Behaviors and teaching lead in Qualitative Research Methods at the University of Oxford’s Nuffield Department of Primary Care Health Sciences. “Doctors often prescribe antibiotics for URTIs, even when they could be fairly certain they might offer no clinical benefit, often due to a lack of alternative treatments and an earnest desire to help patients feel better,” she said.  

For this systematic review and meta-analysis, the researchers analyzed 14 randomized clinical trials that compared the effect of taking honey—pure honey or honey mixed with other ingredients—to either usual care or placebo. “Usual care” included antibiotics or over-the-counter cough syrup/medications. The trials compared cough frequency and severity as well as other symptoms and duration of symptoms.

The researchers determined that honey is more effective than usual care treatments for improving URTI symptoms. It’s especially better at reducing cough frequency and severity.

“When clinicians wish to prescribe for URTI, we would recommend honey as an alternative to antibiotics,” they wrote. “Honey is more effective and less harmful than usual care alternatives and avoids causing harm through anti-microbial resistance.”

Other advantages of honey: it’s inexpensive, widely available, and has practically no side effects.

Said Dr. Albury: “This research gives us good quality evidence that can help doctors be confident when suggesting people use honey.”

Honey treats asthma

Many studies have shown that honey has antibacterial, antifungal, antiviral, antimycobacterial, antioxidant, and anticancer effects. But when used to treat asthma, honey reveals its anti-inflammatory properties.

A study in rabbits found that aerosolized honey relieved the acute effects (ie, rescue treatment) and prevented the occurrence of asthma. Researchers showed that honey reduced the number of airway inflammatory cells in bronchoalveolar lavage fluid and inhibited goblet cell hyperplasia.

“[I]t could prove to be a promising treatment for asthma in humans,” they wrote, though they added that additional and larger studies are needed.

Honey heals wounds

Time may heal all wounds, but honey does it faster.

Honey has been used for wound treatment for millennia. In recent years researchers have returned to honey for wound care for its antibacterial, antiviral, anti-inflammatory, and antioxidant properties. “[I]t is believed that bacteria are unable to develop a resistance to honey due to its ability to block bacterial communication,” wrote authors of a review on honey and wound management.

Honey appears to heal partial thickness burns more quickly than conventional dressings, researchers found. Some evidence also suggests that honey is more effective than antiseptic rinse and gauze for infected surgical site incisions. More studies are needed, however, to support honey’s efficacy for chronic wounds and skin ulcers.

Before using it topically for wound care, honey is sterilized by gamma-irradiation to kill any bacterial spores that could be transferred to the wound, the researchers explained.

Honey fights cancer

Researchers have found that honey can fight cancer through several different mechanisms. “Investigations have indicated that honey has anticancer property through its interference with multiple cell-signaling pathways, including inducing apoptosis, antimutagenic, antiproliferative, and anti-inflammatory pathways,” according to a review of honey research.

Honey stimulates immune responses. It may also prevent cell proliferation, induce apoptosis, modify cell cycle progression, and cause mitochondrial membrane depolarization in cervical, endometrial, liver, colorectal, prostate, renal, bladder, lung, oral, and bone cancer cells, as well as in cancer cells of melanoma, adenocarcinoma, and leukemia.

In various studies in animals, honey has inhibited tumor formation in models of breast cancer, melanoma, colon carcinoma, hepatic cancer, and bladder cancer. “However, more studies are needed to improve our understanding of the positive effect of honey and cancer,” the review authors wrote.

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