What can I do to reduce the cough?

Honey against coughs: do grandmother's home remedies work?

Golden yellow sweet honey, mixed in hot tea or milk. At least our grandmothers swore that when they coughed. Now, an updated Cochrane Review has shown that this tried and true home remedy probably actually works against coughs.

When I was a child I always got hot milk with honey from my grandma when I coughed. At that time there was probably no scientific evidence about the effectiveness of this remedy and no one knew exactly how it would help. But it was always delicious and sweet and it helped me too. Two generations later, I also used this well-tried home remedy on my son. 'Grandmother's secret recipe' seemed to work for him too: his nocturnal coughing attacks decreased and the whole family could sleep better again. In contrast to my grandmother, I was interested in whether the supposed effect of the honey was just coincidental or whether there was scientific evidence of this.

A natural reflex

Coughing is fundamentally helpful in clearing foreign objects from our airways. Often an annoying mucus forms in the bronchi, which is naturally removed by coughing. Therefore, a so-called 'productive cough' should not be prevented too much. After an actually banal infection, however, a dry, tickly cough often robs us of the sleep that we just need. Because sleep is known to be 'the best medicine' and lack of sleep weakens our immune system. But what helps with dry coughs? Often parents give their children - like I my son - honey, either in warm tea or in hot milk.

But why honey?

It is believed that honey reduces the growth of pathogens in the upper respiratory tract and has anti-inflammatory properties. Honey also relieves the cough by diluting the secretions so that coughing up causes less pain. This effect is due to numerous ingredients such as vitamins, minerals and flavonoids.

Scientific evidence

Apparently I am not the only one concerned with the effect of the widespread and well-tried home remedy. An updated Cochrane Review also looked into this question. The authors investigated whether honey actually helps reduce cough symptoms in children and adolescents between 12 months and 18 years of age. Six studies from Iran, Israel, the USA, Brazil and Kenya with a total of 899 participants were included. Overall, the quality of the study was low to moderate.

The review results showed, among other things, that the cough was less annoying after one day of honey given than when given over-the-counter medication, airway-dilating medication (salbutamol), placebo or no treatment. Honey also had a positive effect on the frequency of coughing: the parents stated that after one day of giving honey, the frequency of coughing was already slightly reduced in comparison. After five days, the cough was less common with honey than with salbutamol or placebo. It was also found that honey was better for the sleep of children and their parents than other over-the-counter drugs, antihistamines, placebo, or no treatment.
Side effects were also examined in the Cochrane Review: for example, parents of 7 children out of a total of 149 children who were given honey reported more problems falling asleep, restlessness and feeling overworked compared to 2 children with over-the-counter home remedies. When honey was given, 34 children out of a total of 402 children had gastrointestinal complaints more frequently than 13 children in the placebo group.

And my conclusion?

The studies suggest that honey may be effective against coughs in children. So my grandma's tried and tested honey home remedy probably actually works. And this without serious side effects. However, since most children only received treatment for one night and the quality of the evidence was not very high, the results should be interpreted with caution. Nevertheless, the effectiveness and the possible side effects of honey for coughing should be investigated in larger studies and over a longer period of time. However, there is nothing to prevent children with a cough from preparing hot tea or milk with honey first. Only children under one year of age are not allowed to be given honey, as they are at risk of poisoning with the spores of the bacterium Clostridium botulinum.

Text: Anne Borchard

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