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Is Honey a Safe Treatment for Toddlers with Cough?

Honey for cough in toddlers

If you have a toddler with a cough and neither of you are getting much-needed sleep, a safe, sweet solution may be a touch of honey. While a new study indicates honey can be a safe treatment for toddlers with cough, parents still should be aware of when honey is not safe for children.

Honey may relieve toddler cough

Most children younger than six years of age experience six to 10 colds (upper respiratory infections) per year. Cough is a common symptom of a cold, and it has a tendency to persist for about a week, even after other symptoms of an upper respiratory infection have resolved. That cough can translate into a lot of sleepless nights.

Treatment options for infants and toddlers with cough are limited. Although over-the-counter acetaminophen can be given to treat the common cold in these young children with a doctor's guidance, it does not relieve cough. Treatment of cough for babies and toddlers mainly consists of giving cool liquids, exposure to steam for about 15 minutes to assist breathing, or sleeping with a cool mist humidifier in the room.

An investigative team at Tel Aviv University suggests a sweeter treatment: honey. Little research has been done on the safety and effectiveness of honey in relieving cough in toddlers, so Herman Avner Cohen, MD, and his colleagues conducted a randomized, double-blind, controlled trial in which they enrolled 300 children ages 1 to 5 years from six different pediatric clinics.

All the toddlers had an upper respiratory tract infection that had lasted less than one week and were experiencing coughing at night. The children were randomly assigned to receive one 10-gram dose of placebo (silan date extract), citrus honey, eucalyptus honey, or labiatae honey (plants belonging to the mint family) 30 minutes before going to bed.

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Based on information provided by a survey completed by the children's parents the day before treatment and the day after, the researchers reported the following findings:

  • Cough frequency improved by 1.77 to 1.95 points among children who took honey compared with placebo (1.0 point)
  • When the outcomes for all the factors were combined (cough frequency, cough severity, how much the child was bothered by the cough, and how the cough affected the children and their parents), citrus honey ranked highest with 10.10 points, followed by eucalyptus honey (9.88) and labiatae honey (9.51).
  • The researchers noted that even the placebo helped the children somewhat (a 5.82 point improvement), although improvements were greatest among the toddlers who took honey.
  • Side effects included nausea, stomachache, and vomiting, experienced by two toddlers who took citrus honey and one child in each of the other three groups.

More about honey
An important warning about honey is the risk of infantile botulism if honey is given to infants younger than 12 months of age. Infantile botulism, although rare, can occur if an infant swallows spores of the bacterium Clostridium botulinum. In infants, the large intestine is highly susceptible to spore germination and toxin production, and honey has been identified as an avoidable source of botulinum spores.

Otherwise, honey has been studied and credited with a variety of health benefits. At the First International Symposium on Honey and Human Health, which was held in Sacramento, California, in January 2008, researchers reported on some of those health benefits, such as:

  • Presence of beneficial bacteria (probiotics) in different varieties of honey, including species of Lactobacilli and Bifidobacteria, which have been shown to help with childhood diarrhea and to reduce cold and flu symptoms in children and infants
  • Buckwheat honey was reported to be more effective at treating cough than was dextromethorphan among children ages 2 to 18 years
  • Honey may also boost function of the immune system among patients with acute febrile neutropenia (when high fever reduces infection-fighting white blood cell levels)

Given the few treatment options available to parents who have a toddler suffering with cough, a little honey offers a sweet treatment choice. Overall, the researchers noted that "Honey may be a preferable treatment of cough and sleep difficulties associated with childhood upper respiratory tract infections."

Cohen H et al. Effect of honey on nocturnal cough and sleep quality: a double-blind, randomized, placebo-controlled study. Pediatrics 2012
Fessenden R. Report to the Officers and Board of Directors of the Committee for the Promotion of Honey and Health, January 21, 2008.

Image: PhotosPublicDomain



After finishing residency, I noticed an Rx from a near retirement-age MD back in the '70's that a patient was coming in to pick-up for their child. It read WHL sig q4h prn. I just had to ask. He chuckled, explained it was NOT for infants under a year old, and said WHL meant bourbon whiskey, honey, and lemon, to be taken every 4 hours as needed. I commented that was really just a whiskey sour but apparently, it used to be common, works reasonably well and the pharmacy had no trouble filling it.
Yes, I have heard of this remedy, but as for the wisdom of giving bourbon to a toddler.....perhaps the honey and lemon for the child and the bourbon for the parent who is losing sleep because of the coughing child!
My two children have an upper respiratory infection virus the doctor told me give them honey but i need to know how offert do i give it too them
Breanna: I am not a medical professional, so you really should ask your doctor. Based on the studies down in children, the honey is administered at bedtime but you can give it more often if needed. Childrens Hospital Colorado website notes that 1/2 to 1 teaspoon of honey as needed can be given. And of course NO child younger than 1 year old should be given honey.