Buckwheat Honey More Effective than OTC Cough Syrup

Last winter the FDA issued a public health advisory on over-the-counter cold and cough medicine products for children, and cautioning against use in those under the age of two. This, of course, left lots of parents wondering what to do instead — not to mention adults curious about whether those concoctions are helpful or harmful, even for big folks. One very sweet solution has been identified — honey.

Many cultures around the world use honey for cough relief, and in fact the World Health Organization has suggested its use for this purpose, since it doesn’t cause the side effects that can be associated with many OTC cough remedies. However, according to Ian Paul, MD, associate professor of pediatrics and public health sciences at Pennsylvania State University College of Medicine in Hershey, Pennsylvania, there hadn’t yet been any research studies confirming its effectiveness… so Dr. Paul and his research team jumped in.


Dr. Paul and colleagues conducted a study comparing a single dose of dextromethorphan (DM) — the active ingredient in most over-the-counter cough remedies — with a single dose of buckwheat honey. Parents of 105 children being treated for upper respiratory infections by doctors at a pediatric practice in Hershey, Pennsylvania, participated in a survey on their child’s symptoms. In the single-night study, children were assigned randomly to one of three treatment groups. The first group was given a single dose of a honey-flavored DM preparation… the second a dose of buckwheat honey… while children in the third group received no treatment at all. Doses of both varied, depending on the age of the child (the groups were age two to five… six to 11… and 12 to 18).

The parents were asked to give subjective assessments of their child’s cough, including severity and difficulty sleeping, both the night before and the night of the study. It turned out that honey provided significantly greater relief for all symptoms evaluated, with the DM treatment coming in second.


Though buckwheat honey was used in the study, Dr. Paul said he believes that even the lighter shade varieties may have benefits. “While the darker honeys like buckwheat contain more antioxidants, it was probably not the only mechanism providing relief,” he said. “There’s also a topical effect. Any thick, syrupy liquid will coat the back of the throat and calm the inflamed areas when swallowed. Plus, honey is sweet, which causes salivation, which thins the mucus and therefore can help alleviate congestion.”

Note: Honey is not safe for infants under the age of one year, because of a rare but very serious side effect called infant botulism. It is, however, generally safe for children over 12 months — and it’s also soothing and helpful even for grown-ups, who have been known to act like babies when made miserable with colds and coughs. If you have been previously diagnosed with thrush or chronic upper respiratory disease, check with your doctor first — otherwise, “honey is cheap, safe and effective,” says Dr. Paul.