By Rod Moser, PA, PhD
One of my old instructors, a West Virginia pediatrician, would give his young patients a prescription for homemade cough medicine that included various amounts of honey and lemon. He kept the recipe on a pad so he could just tear off a sheet and hand it out, like a real prescription. Years later, when I had my own three-year old, coughing like a old smoker with emphysema, I tried desperately to recall the recipe.
I found a jar of honey and some of that squirt-lemon you buy at the grocery store. Not knowing the exact proportions, I just guessed. I stirred it up and put a healthy amount in a medicine cup.
My little girl was sitting on the couch, wrapped in her favorite blanket. She had been coughing for a few months (yes, months!), ever since she started in preschool. It was one cold after another, resulting in sleepless nights. As a clinician, I had plenty of good cough medicine around the house, mostly containing codeine. Although it codeine is safe for kids at the proper dose, I thought I would give this old recipe a try.
She trustingly took the concoction and downed it in one gulp. This was immediately followed by forceful spitting, crying, and waving her accusatory finger at me, like I was trying to poison her. I guess I had too much lemon, or maybe not enough honey. Either way, my attempt at making my own cough medicine was a dismal failure. It took quite a while before she trusted me again with any medicine. Her cough did seem to improve, mostly because she was covering her mouth to quiet it so I wouldn’t hear.
Now, thirty years later, honey is making a comeback as a safe and effective nighttime cough suppressant for kids (over age 1) who are fighting off a cold. Out of fear that babies could get botulism from unprocessed honey, we don’t give it to them.
Despite my unsuccessful first attempt at a homemade cough treatment, I started recommending honey to parents with sick kids several years ago and have even used it myself. I was impressed. It works.
Several controlled studies compared honey to OTC cough medicines and found honey to actually be more effective. A study of three hundreds kids in Israel even compared different types of honey to see if one may be more effective than another. They were all equally efficacious, but as usual, not everyone in the medical community is convinced and are calling for more data and studies. Many clinicians are still prescribing codeine or recommending dextromethorphan (DM)-containing preparations.
Give it a try the next time your kids are coughing. While no medication will totally stop a cough, nor should it, honey can be an effective, safe, and tasty alternative to prescription or OTC cough suppressants.