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Study Finds Honey More Effective than Meds for Kids

Note to Mary Poppins: Forget the medicine and go straight for the sweet stuff.

Just as over-the-counter cough and cold products have been declared off-limits for kids under age 6 by a federal advisory panel and parents are at a loss for soothing stuffy kids at bedtime, researchers offer an alternative: A spoonful of honey soothes coughs just as well or better than cough medicine.

A research study published today  (read full study here in Archives of Pediatrics and Adolescent Medicine) found that kids who got a dose of honey coughed less and slept somewhat better than those who got cough medicine with dextromethorphan (DM), the ingredient in most over-the-counter products that suppress the urge to cough.

Or, honey is almost as ineffective as cough medicine, depending on how you look at it.

Those cough medicines, which have been marketed to parents at a cost of about $50 million each year, have been shown to be of little benefit to kids anyway.

But Dr. Ian Paul, a pediatrician and the researcher who conducted the study on about 100 kids, said that at least now doctors have an answer for parents who want to do something for their kids who can't sleep.

"It's hard for us to say that there are no medicines that we can recommend," said Paul, an assistant professor of pediatrics at Pennsylvania State University in Hershey, Pa. "Now I'm happy ... that parents have something to try."

(Note to parents: Do not give honey to any child under the age of 1 year. Infants younger than that are at risk for botulism from honey, experts say.)

A widespread remedy

Paul said that honey has long been used in other countries to treat coughs and that it has a long history in the United States as a natural remedy for a stuffed head, sore throat and cough. A common remedy is honey with tea and lemon.

But no one has ever studied it in comparison to other treatments, he said. Paul's research was funded by the National Honey Board, but it went through the rigorous peer review required of all research published in the journal Archives of Pediatrics and Adolescent Medicine.

For parents, that kind of research is particularly valuable now that an advisory panel to the Food and Drug Administration said last month that children under the age of 6 should not be given over-the-counter cough and cold medicines such as Children's Tylenol Plus Cold and Johnson & Johnson's PediaCare. They don't work very well and there are safety concerns, the panel said.

It stopped short of recommending an outright ban for older kids. But such medications should not be sold for use by infants, the panel said. The FDA is not required to follow advisory panel recommendations, but it usually does.

Even before the panel made its recommendation, pharmacies across the country pulled 14 brands of infant cold and cough medicines from their shelves at the urging of the Consumer Healthcare Products Association, which represents major drug manufacturers.

"When you look at relative risk-to-benefit ratio, I think a lot of natural options are worth considering," said Dr. Timothy Culbert, medical director for the integrative medicine program at Children's Hospitals and Clinics of Minnesota.

Dr. Gigi Chawla, a pediatrician with Children's, agreed. "I wish they had studied mom's chicken soup, too," she said.

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