Updated: Apr 16, 2020
Hot water with any combination of honey, ginger or lemon is probably the most popular folk remedy around the world for cold symptoms. Is there any science that can back this up?
Do they reduce cold symptoms? Do they speed up recovery? Or are they world's most prominent placebos?
Let's first start off with honey.
Since ancient times it has been considered to have medicinal properties. It has been used in traditional medicine to treat coughs and today can be found in several over-the-counter cough remedies. (1)
In recent times it has also shown to have antibacterial, antifungal and anti-inflammatory activities. These properties of honey mostly show in wound healing.
In acute wounds and superficial burns, honey is at least as good as conventional treatments or in some cases, even slightly better. (2)
That's impressive, but how well does it work for virus infections?
Antiviral activities? That sounds like it is the antidote for a cold.
Well, it has shown to be effective against different kinds of viruses, among which influenza, but that was established from within a Petri dish, not in actual humans.
Honey & cough
Most of the research done on honey and the common cold has been limited to a specific cold symptom, cough. Especially before bedtime, and mostly among children.
In the biggest review of studies done on honey and cough, the authors concluded that there was NO STRONG EVIDENCE for using honey. That said, there was also no evidence against using honey. (4)
The studies from the reviews had lots of issues though. On one side, most of the children received only a 'honey treatment' once and, on the other side, there were studies included that were funded by the Honey Board.
However, the evidence may not be strong, but the conclusion was that it may still be better than nothing. Furthermore, giving honey for up to three days is probably more effective than giving it just a single time. (4)
And honey makes little or no difference compared to various over-the-counter (OTC) cough medicines. (4)
Honey or over-the-counter medicine?
Considering OTC medicines have a range of side-effects and aren't any more effective at reducing cough, honey is probably a better alternative. Especially since only a small serving of 2,5 ml is needed, which is less than a teaspoon. Sensitive children can experience side-effects though, such as nervousness, insomnia, and hyperactivity, so be on the lookout for that.
AND the most important thing to be aware of:
HONEY SHOULD NEVER BE GIVEN TO CHILDREN LESS THAN 1 YEAR OF AGE,
Some honey might contain spores of dangerous toxin producing bacteria, called Clostridium Botulinum, hence the name 'Botulism'.
Infants lack a well developed immune system, which gives Clostridium a chance to grow and multiply, causing major issues in the oxygen delivery system.
In other words, less oxygen can reach tissues, including the brain. Some brain or neurological problems can form and last a lifetime. It's not a risk you want to be taking for your child. (5)
Numb your pain
There is evidence that merely the taste of something sweet can reduce coughing and make it less painful.
Sweet taste per se seems to have pain reducing properties, likely due, in part, to the release of endogenous opioids. (8) In plain English that means: Something sweet can act an addictive drug and make all your worries go away.
Okay, maybe not to that extent, but it explains the cliche of wanting to empty a pint of ice cream when confronted with too many problems.
Remember something sweet in the mouth was all that was needed to attain the pain numbing effects?
Right, it wasn't needed inside the stomach. (8) That means, next time you want to devour that ice cream or empty a bag of sweets inside your digestive tract, remember you can just suck or nibble on it instead, without swallowing, followed by the graceful act of spitting everything out.
You can, of course, also read about how to deal with food cravings and learn to deal with the root of the problem and avoid the awkward situation of whether or not you should swallow.
Honey is more ideal than sugar, but there may be something else - although there's no science in respect to colds - that is worth a try: Molasses.
(Dark strap) molasses, is a nutritious 'waste product' in the sugar industry. It's all the nutrition, that sugar originally contained. It has a significant amount of antioxidants that far outweigh honey's. (9)
It's kind of ironic that the most nutritious part is actually considered waste. This waste product of sugar refinement is a dense, darkly coloured substance teeming in minerals. Traditionally, molasses has been used as an alternative sweetener to sugar. (10)
Sugar and honey are sweeter than molasses and molasses has a bit of an acquired taste, so proceed at your own risk.
Sweet and acidic
Sweet, in combination with something acidic may provide an even better stimulus for salivation and airway secretions. (6)
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That brings us to Lemon. Ever bitten into a lemon before?
Then you know just how acidic it is.
The combination of honey and lemon is a popular one. The combination of acid and sweet may work better than only something sweet when it comes to lubricating the airways, which are irritated when you're infected with a cold virus. (6)
What about lemon alone?
We know that consuming sour substances can increase the saliva production as well, because it can increase the frequency of swallowing. In this case it MIGHT be necessary to swallow the substance as the participants in the study were not allowed to swirl the sour liquid around in their mouths. They were ordered to swallow on command. (10)
Don't get the wrong idea here, pervert.
So, drinking lemon juice or lemon water might help to an extent.
Does it have antiviral qualities by any chance?
A concentrated version in the form of lemon essential oil, seems to have some antiviral qualities. (11)
However, in relation to cold viruses, little is known.
We do know lemon balm has antiviral qualities and may help with the herpes simplex virus that produces cold sores, (12) but that isn't relevant.
Unless of course, you actually have a cold sore.
Ginger has been found to possess antioxidant, anti-inflammatory, antimicrobial, and anticancer activities and has the potential to prevent and manage several diseases, such as neurodegenerative diseases, cardiovascular diseases, obesity, diabetes mellitus, chemotherapy-induced nausea and emesis (a fancy word for vomiting), and respiratory disorders. (13)
Ginger surely must be able to stop a simple rhinovirus then, the most common cause of the common cold. And it surely must be able to handle the virus common among the very young, the respiratory syncytial (sin-SISH-uhl) virus (RSV).
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But again, no direct tests in humans have been done, only on human airway 'cells' and in animals. (16)
It can even reduce the soreness in your muscles the day after exercising, which we often call delayed onset muscles soreness. (13)
We think that ginger does that in 2 ways, both of which are relevant to potentially reducing cold symptoms:
by decreasing inflammation resulting from damaged muscle fibers;
As we've talked about before, the pain alleviation may help reduce the pain caused by coughing. The reduced inflammation may help, because the cold symptoms are, at least partly, caused by inflammation as discussed in: Can chicken soup help you recover from your cold?
That means, next time you want to numb your pain, instead of grabbing for ice cream, munch on a stalk of ginger. It's really efficiently at bringing you right back into the present.
Especially if you have one of the spicier kinds.
Your mindset is key
Echinacea is a popular herb for colds. It is considered to help you feel better sooner and alleviate some of your symptoms.
A famous study that looked into this showed some interesting results.
People that didn't take any pills felt worse for a longer period of time than people that did take pills, which is to be expected.
All people that got pills, were up and running significantly faster and their symptoms also seemed less severe. But there were two kind of pills:
One contained echinacea and one contained a placebo.
Does this prove echinacea is useless for colds?
Not entirely. Some people were not aware of receiving echinacea, but still recovered faster.
What it does prove is that your own mindset is a vital component in the way you feel and recover from illness.
Based on all the information above ginger seems to pair well with something sweet like honey and may offer some alleviation of your cold symptoms.
Although no research has been done on molasses and cough or colds in particular, they provide significantly more nutrition and antioxidants in comparison with honey and may be well worth a try.
Something acidic such as lemon thrown into the mix seems beneficial for the extra lubrication of the airways.
On top of this all, as we've also mentioned in, Can chicken soup help you recover from your cold?, a hot drink on its own can reduce cold symptoms as well.
That means a HOT ginger tea with lemon and honey or molasses will alleviate you of some of your cold symptoms, in the very least temporarily, and is preferred over the same drink drunk at room temperature or drunk cold.
There is no evidence to suggest that honey, lemon, ginger or any combination thereof will let you heal faster as is often believed, but it's also not entirely impossible either.
In any case, there is no harm by drinking hot, antioxidant-rich drinks like this to stay hydrated and let you feel less sick.
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