Some interesting research is being reported in the mainstream media: that buckwheat honey can reduce coughing and soothe sore throats as well as over-the-counter cough syrup (dextromethorphan), in children. ABC News specifically reported that, in comparison to baseline levels, coughing children who received honey slept better and coughed less that those that received cough syrup or nothing at all. I decided to go to the journal article, published in Archives of Pediatrics and Adolescent Medicine, and read about the results myself.
The authors’ objective was to compare honey, honey-flavored dextromethorpham (DXM), and no treatment on coughing and sleep behavior in children with colds. DXM is an antitussive and common ingredient in cold medications. However at high doses (high above therapeutic doses) can be dissociative hallucinogen as well as cause a type of brain damage called Olney’s lesions. So, it seems quite reasonable to test whether a drug-free alternative might work as well as DXM syrup for children.
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Parents of 105 children with comparable symptoms of upper respiratory infections and aged 2-18 were administered a survey before the experimental trials begun. Then honey, honey-flavored DXM, or no treatment was administered to the children on the next night, with the parents subsequently reporting on the effects using the same survey. See a clip of the survey below, view entire survey here.
Children received the treatment in a “partially double-blinded fashion” in an opaque 10 ml syringe placed in a brown paper bag. The no-treatment group was not blinded, but the honey and DXM groups were. The treatments were given to the children by the parents 30 minutes before bedtime, and the surveys were conducted over the phone the next morning.
Parents’ subjective self-reports indicated that the group of children which received honey fared as well or slightly better than those who received the DXM cough syrup or nothing. (Results indicated below, lower score indicate more desireable outcome.) Significant differences existed in the child sleep, child’s cough, and parent sleep. Although it is worth noting that even the group which received no treatment fared better than the first day, suggesting that the symptoms naturally improved over time even in the abscence of intervention.
These results are not entirely unexpected. Honey is a viscous liquid which coats the throat and reduces the feeling of irritation. It also has some anti-microbial properties and is an anti-oxidant. Also, it tastes great, as opposed to many cough syrups which have a less-than-pleasing taste. This might make children more apt to take it without a fuss. There were a few downsides to honey: some hyperactivity and insomnia in a few children, but it was minor. The subjective nature of the survey should also be considered as less than ideal– the parents, while reported to be blinded to the condition of the treatment, might have actually have known via the child’s reaction to the medication.
Honey as an alternative to DXM cough syrup may be important not just in children. DXM should not be taken if a person is also taking SSRIs, MAOis, CNS depressants (alcohol, antihistimines, etc), and a host of other medications, as it could result in a fatal drug reaction. Honey would provide a safe replacement if this paper’s conclusions as to its effectiveness were duplicated in other studies (which were perhaps a bit more methodologically rigorous.)
Paul et al. 2007. Effect of Honey, Dextromethorphan, and No Treatment on Nocturnal Cough and Sleep Quality for Coughing Children and Their Parents. Arch Pediatric Adoles Med. 161, 1140-1147. PDF