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Honey

What is it?

Honey is a substance produced by bees from the nectar of plants. It is used as a medicine.

Honey can become contaminated with germs from plants, bees, and dust during production, and also during collection and processing. Fortunately, the germ-fighting characteristics of honey ensure that most contaminating organisms cannot survive or reproduce. However, bacteria that reproduce using spores, including the bacterium that causes botulism, may remain. This explains why botulism has been reported in infants given honey by mouth. To solve this problem, medical-grade honey (Medihoney, for example) is irradiated to inactive the bacterial spores. Medical-grade honey is also standardized to have consistent germ-fighting activity. Some experts also suggest that medical-grade honey should be collected from hives that are free from germs and not treated with antibiotics, and that the nectar should be from plants that have not been treated with pesticides.

Honey is used for cough, asthma, and hay fever. It is also used for diarrhea and stomach ulcers caused by infection with Helicobacter pylori (H. pylori) bacteria. Honey is also used as a source of carbohydrate during vigorous exercise.

Some people apply honey directly to the skin for wound healing, burns, sunburn, cataracts, and diabetic foot ulcers. Topical use of honey has a long history. In fact, it is considered one of the oldest known wound dressings. Honey was used by the ancient Greek physician Dioscorides in 50 A.D. for sunburn and infected wounds. Honey’s healing properties are mentioned in the Bible, Koran, and Torah.

In foods, honey is used as a sweetening agent.

In manufacturing, honey is used as a fragrance and a moisturizer in soaps and cosmetics.

Don’t confuse honey with bee pollen, bee venom, and royal jelly.

How effective is it?

Natural Medicines Comprehensive Database rates effectiveness based on scientific evidence according to the following scale: Effective, Likely Effective, Possibly Effective, Possibly Ineffective, Likely Ineffective, Ineffective, and Insufficient Evidence to Rate.

The effectiveness ratings for HONEY are as follows:

Possibly effective for...

  • Burns. Applying honey preparations directly to burns seems to improve healing.
  • Cough. Taking a small amount of honey at bedtime appears to reduce the number of coughing spells in children age 2 and older. Honey appears to be at least as effective as the cough suppressant dextromethorphan in typical over-the-counter doses. Some researchers think the sweet taste of honey triggers salivation. This, in turn, promotes secretion of mucus, which wets the airway and calms the cough.
  • Diabetes. Some evidence suggests that taking honey daily results in small decreases in blood sugar, cholesterol levels, and weight in people with diabetes.
  • Sore mouth due to radiation treatment (mucositis). Results from clinical studies suggest that honey reduces the risk of developing mouth sores from radiation treatment. Other research shows that taking 20 mL of honey or applying honey gauze (HoneySoft) reduces the seriousness of mouth sores, painful swallowing, and weight loss associated with radiation therapy for head and neck cancers.
  • Wound healing. Applying honey preparations directly to wounds or using dressings containing honey seems to improve healing. Several small studies describe the use of honey or honey-soaked dressings for various types of wounds, including wounds after surgery, chronic leg ulcers, abscesses, burns, abrasions, cuts, and places where skin was taken for grafting. Honey seems to reduce odors and pus, help clean the wound, reduce infection, reduce pain, and decrease time to healing. In some reports, wounds healed with honey after other treatments failed to work.

Possibly ineffective for...

  • Skin infection caused by parasites (Leishmania lesions). Limited research suggests that using honey-soaked dressings twice daily for 6 weeks in addition to medication injections results in slower healing than medications alone.

Insufficient evidence to rate effectiveness for...

  • Hay fever. Research so far suggests that taking one tablespoon of honey daily, in addition to standard treatment, does not improve allergy symptoms.
  • Athletic performance. Some early evidence suggests that honey might bring blood sugar to normal levels following exercise and improve performance when given during exercise.
  • Infections caused by catheters used for kidney dialysis. Early research suggests that manuka honey (Medihoney) applied three times weekly to the exit sites of certain types of implanted hemodialysis catheters is as effective as a standard treatment called mupirocin ointment in reducing the occurrence of catheter-associated infections and blood infections.
  • Diabetic foot ulcers. Some reports suggest that applying topical raw honey can speed healing of otherwise non-healing diabetic foot ulcers. This seems to be true even if the wound is infected by methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus (MRSA), vancomycin-resistant Enterococcus (VRE), or Pseudomonas infection. In one report, a previously non-healing wound healed completely after applying supermarket honey under dressings for 6-12 months. This patient’s leg was saved from amputation.
  • Eye surgery. A small study reported that there were no differences between the effects of medication eye drops (Uniflox) and honey eye drops (Abies spp.) when given five times daily for 7 days before and 5 days after eye surgery.
  • Fournier’s gangrene. Early research has shown unclear results about the effects of honey dressings, when used with antibiotics, as a treatment for Fournier’s gangrene.
  • Gingivitis. Early research suggests that chewable leather made from manuka honey slightly reduces plaque and gum bleeding compared to sugarless chewing gum.
  • Hemorrhoids. Early research suggests that a mixture containing honey, olive oil, and beeswax relieves pain, bleeding, and itching from hemorrhoids.
  • Cold sores (herpes simplex). Early research suggests that applying a dressing soaked with honey four times daily improves symptoms and healing time of cold sores but not genital herpes.
  • High cholesterol. One study shows that taking 75 grams of honey daily for 14 days lowers low-density lipoprotein (LDL or “bad”) cholesterol in women with high cholesterol. Other research shows that taking honey with pollen and a pre-specified diet can reduce total cholesterol and LDL cholesterol in individuals with abnormal cholesterol levels. However, in another study, taking 70 grams of honey daily for 30 days did not affect cholesterol levels.
  • Diarrhea. Some research shows that adding honey to a solution helps decrease vomiting and diarrhea, and can improve recovery in children and infants with diarrhea. However, another study shows that adding honey provides no benefits.
  • Infertility. Early research suggests that applying a combination of Egyptian bee honey and royal jelly in the vagina increases pregnancy rates.
  • Poor nutrition. Early evidence suggests that honey improves weight and other symptoms in infants and children with poor nutrition.
  • Itching (pruritus). Early evidence shows that applying a honey cream on the skin for 21 days can reduce itchy skin more than a zinc oxide ointment in people with skin irritation caused by rubbing.
  • Sunburn.
  • Asthma.
  • Allergies.
  • Breaking up thick mucus secretions.
  • Digestive tract ulcers.
  • Cataracts.
  • Other conditions.
More evidence is needed to rate the effectiveness of honey for these uses.

How does it work?

Some of the chemicals in honey may kill certain bacteria and fungus. When applied to the skin, honey may serve as a barrier to moisture and keep skin from sticking to dressings. Honey may also provide nutrients and other chemicals that speed wound healing.

Are there safety concerns?

Honey is LIKELY SAFE for most adults and children over one year old when taken by mouth or when appropriately applied to the skin by adults.

Honey is POSSIBLY UNSAFE when taken by mouth in infants and very young children. Do not use raw honey in infants and young children under 12 months of age due to the chance of botulism poisoning. This is not a danger for older children or adults.

Honey is LIKELY UNSAFE when it is produced from the nectar of Rhododendrons and taken by mouth. This type of honey contains a toxin that may cause heart problems, low blood pressure, chest pain, as well as other serious heart problems.

Special precautions & warnings:

Pregnancy and breast-feeding: Honey is LIKELY SAFE when taken in food amounts. The concern about botulism applies to infants and young children and not to adults or pregnant women. However, not enough is known about the safety of honey when used for medicinal purposes in women who are pregnant or breast-feeding. Stay on the safe side and avoid medicinal amounts and topical applications.

Pollen allergies: Avoid honey if you are allergic to pollen. Honey, which is made from pollen, may cause allergic reactions.

Are there interactions with medications?

Moderate
Be cautious with this combination.
Medications that slow blood clotting (Anticoagulant / Antiplatelet drugs)
Honey might slow blood clotting. In theory, taking honey along with medications that also slow clotting might increase the chances of bruising and bleeding.

Some medications that slow blood clotting include aspirin; clopidogrel (Plavix); nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) such as diclofenac (Voltaren, Cataflam, others), ibuprofen (Advil, Motrin, others), naproxen (Anaprox, Naprosyn, others); dalteparin (Fragmin); enoxaparin (Lovenox); heparin; warfarin (Coumadin); and others.
Phenytoin (Dilantin)
Honey might increase how much phenytoin (Dilantin) the body absorbs. Taking honey along with phenytoin (Dilantin) might increase the effects and side effects of phenytoin (Dilantin).
Minor
Be watchful with this combination.
Medications changed by the liver (Cytochrome P450 3A4 (CYP3A4) substrates)
Some medications are changed and broken down by the liver. Honey might decrease how quickly the liver breaks down some medications. Taking honey along with some medications that are broken down by the liver can increase the effects and side effects of these medications. Before taking honey, talk to your healthcare provider if you are taking any medications that are changed by the liver.

Some medications changed by the liver include calcium channel blockers (diltiazem, nicardipine, verapamil), chemotherapeutic agents (etoposide, paclitaxel, vinblastine, vincristine, vindesine), antifungals (ketoconazole, itraconazole), glucocorticoids, cisapride (Propulsid), alfentanil (Alfenta), fentanyl (Sublimaze), losartan (Cozaar), fluoxetine (Prozac), midazolam (Versed), omeprazole (Prilosec), ondansetron (Zofran), propranolol (Inderal), fexofenadine (Allegra), and numerous others.

Are there interactions with herbs and supplements?

Herbs and supplements that might slow blood clotting
Using other herbs and supplements that slow blood clotting along with honey might increase the risk of bleeding in some people. This is because honey might slow blood clotting. Some other herbs that may slow blood clotting include angelica, clove, danshen, garlic, ginger, ginkgo, Panax ginseng, and others.

Are there interactions with foods?

There are no known interactions with foods.

What dose is used?

The following doses have been studied in scientific research:

BY MOUTH:
  • For cough: 2.5-10 mL (0.5-2 teaspoons) of honey at bedtime.
APPLIED TO THE SKIN:
  • For the treatment of burns and wounds: Honey is applied directly or in a dressing. The dressings are usually changed every 24-48 hours, but are sometimes left in place for up to 25 days. The wound should be inspected every 2 days. When used directly, 15 mL to 30 mL of honey has been applied every 12-48 hours, and covered with sterile gauze and bandages or a polyurethane dressing.

Other names

Apis mellifera, Buckwheat Honey, Chestnut Honey, Clarified Honey, Honig, Jellybush Honey, Madhu, Manuka Honey, Mel, Miel, Miel Blanc, Miel Clarifié, Miel de Châtaignier, Miel de Manuka, Miel de Sarrasin, Miel Filtré, Purified Honey, Strained Honey.

Methodology

To learn more about how this article was written, please see the Natural Medicines Comprehensive Database methodology.

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Last reviewed - 02/14/2015