What is it?
Honey can become contaminated with germs from plants, bees, and dust during production, collection, and processing. Fortunately, there are characteristics of honey that prevent these germs from remaining alive or reproducing. However, some bacteria that reproduce using spores, such as the type that causes botulism, can 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 inactivate 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, diabetes, high levels of cholesterol, asthma, and hay fever. It is also used for diarrhea, ulcers in the mouth caused by cancer treatment, and stomach ulcers caused by infection with Helicobacter pylori (H. pylori) bacteria. Honey is also used as a source of carbohydrate during vigorous exercise or in people who are malnourished. It may also be used orally for wound healing following the removal of tonsils.
Some people apply honey directly to the skin for wound healing, burns, diabetic foot ulcers, gangrene, and treating cataracts or clouding of the cornea in people who were infected by herpes virus. It is also applied to the skin for sunburns, to prevent infections that occur following the use of catheters, and to prevent the spread of cancer cells when a tumor is being removed. Honey is applied inside the mouth and then swallowed to prevent and treat mouth ulcers that occur during cancer treatment and to prevent infections of the gums. It may also be applied to the skin to reduce itching, to treat skin lesions that occur after infection with an organism called Leishmania, for hemorrhoids, and for herpes infections.
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.
Honey is used as a nasal spray for hay fever.
Honey is applied into the vagina to improve fertility.
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 years and older. Honey appears to be at least as effective as the cough suppressant dextromethorphan in typical over-the-counter doses. Also, drinking water containing a small amount of a honey/coffee paste seems to reduce the frequency of coughing in adults that have a long-lasting cough after they have been ill.
- Mouth sores due to radiation or chemical treatment (mucositis). Rinsing the mouth and then slowly swallowing honey before and after radiation therapy sessions seems to reduce the risk of developing mouth sores. Also, applying honey to mouth sores or taking a honey/coffee paste seems to help heal mouth ulcers caused by chemotherapy.
- 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.
Insufficient evidence to rate effectiveness for...
- Hay fever. It is not clear if honey can help with symptoms of hay fever. Some early research shows that taking one tablespoon of honey daily, in addition to standard treatment, doesn't improve allergy symptoms. However, other early research shows that taking honey, in addition to standard treatment, might slightly improve certain symptoms such as itching in the nose and sneezing.
- Athletic performance. Early research suggests that honey might improve blood levels following exercise and improve performance when given during exercise.
- Infections caused by catheters used for kidney dialysis. Early research suggests that applying manuka honey (Medihoney by Medihoney Pty Ltd) to the exit sites of certain types of implanted hemodialysis catheters prevents infections from developing as effectively as certain antibiotics or antiseptics. However, other research suggests applying Manuka honey (Medihoney Antibacterial Wound Gel by Comvita) at the exit site does not reduce the occurrence of these infections. In fact, it might increase the risk of infection in people with diabetes.
- Diabetes. Some early research shows that eating large doses of honey each day can decrease cholesterol levels in people with type 2 diabetes. But it also seems to increase HbA1c, a measure of average blood sugar levels. Other early research shows that ingesting smaller amounts of honey each day can decrease fasting blood sugar and cholesterol levels in people with type 1 diabetes.
- Diabetic foot ulcers. Unreliable reports and some early research suggests that applying raw honey to the skin can speed healing of otherwise non-healing diabetic foot ulcers. Also, applying dressings containing honey to diabetic foot ulcers seems to reduce healing time and prevent the need for antibiotics. However, other early research suggests that applying honey to the skin does not speed healing of diabetic foot ulcers. But it does seem to reduce pain.
- 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 chewing "leather" made from manuka honey slightly reduces plaque and gum bleeding compared to sugarless chewing gum in people with gingivitis.
- Hemorrhoids. Early research suggests that applying a spoonful of a mixture containing honey, olive oil, and beeswax reduces bleeding and itching caused by 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. Some early research shows that taking 75 grams of honey per day for 14 days lowers low-density lipoprotein (LDL or "bad") cholesterol in women with high cholesterol. But other early research shows that taking 70 grams of honey per day for 30 days does not lower cholesterol levels in people with normal or high cholesterol levels.
- "Stomach flu". Some research shows that adding honey to a solution given to treat dehydration helps decrease vomiting and diarrhea, and can improve recovery in children and infants with stomach flu. However, another study shows that adding honey to a solution used to treat dehydration decreases diarrhea in only infants and children with stomach flu caused by bacteria but not those with stomach flu caused by a virus or other parasite.
- Infertility. Early research suggests that applying a combination of Egyptian bee honey and royal jelly in the vagina increases pregnancy rates for couples having difficulty getting pregnant due to male infertility.
- Skin infection caused by parasites (Leishmania lesions). Early research suggests that covering sores with honey-soaked dressings twice daily for 6 weeks in addition to medication injections results in slower healing than medications alone.
- Poor nutrition. Early research suggests that honey improves weight and other symptoms in infants and children with poor nutrition.
- Itching (pruritus). Early research shows that applying a honey cream (Medihoney Barrier Cream by Derma Sciences Inc.) on the skin for 21 days can reduce itchy skin more than a zinc oxide ointment in people with skin irritation caused by rubbing.
- Skin damage due to radiation. Applying honey gauze once daily to severe skin wounds caused by radiation therapy does not improve healing compared to applying paraffin gauze.
- Sinus infection caused by allergy to fungus. Early research shows that using a nasal spray containing honey in salt water does not reduce symptoms in people with sinus infection caused by allergy to fungus.
- Breaking up thick mucus secretions.
- Digestive tract ulcers.
- Other conditions.
How does it work?
Are there safety concerns?
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.
Diabetes: Using large amounts of honey might increase blood sugar levels in people with type 2 diabetes. Also, applying honey at dialysis exit sites may increase the risk of infection in people with diabetes.
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?
- 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).
- 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?
- For cough: 25 grams of a paste containing 20.8 grams of honey and 2.9 grams of coffee has been dissolved in 200 mL of warm water and drank every 8 hours.
- For the treatment of burns and wounds: Honey is applied directly or in a dressing or gauze. 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.
- For sores in the mouth due to radiation or chemical treatment: Honey 20 mL has been rinsed around the mouth 15 minutes before radiation therapy, then 15 minutes and 6 hours after radiation or at bedtime, and then slowly swallowed or spit out. Honey has also been placed in the mouth in gauze and replaced daily. Also, a honey/coffee paste 10 mL or honey paste alone 10 mL, each containing 50% honey, has been rinsed around the mouth and swallowed every 3 hours.
- For cough: 2.5-10 mL (0.5-2 teaspoons) of honey at bedtime.
- For the treatment of wounds related to tonsil removal: 5 mL of honey taken every hour while awake for 14 days has been used in combination with antibiotics and acetaminophen.
- For sores in the mouth due to radiation or chemical treatment: Up to 15 grams of honey has been applied inside the mouth three times daily.
- For the treatment of abscess wounds: Honey soaked gauze has been packed into wounds twice daily until healing.
To learn more about how this article was written, please see the Natural Medicines Comprehensive Database methodology.
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