A steamy mug of honey-lemon tea is a classic remedy for the common cold. But is this soothing concoction really an effective way to alleviate symptoms or is it simply an urban myth? Here's what the research has to say about whether lemon and honey really work.
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Honey for Cough and Colds
Honey has been used as both food and medicine since ancient times. It has antioxidant, antimicrobial, anti-inflammatory, antiproliferative, anticancer and antimetastatic properties, according to a 2017 review in Pharmacognosy Research.
There's also research showing that it can be antiviral, which can be particularly useful in reducing inflammation and alleviating a sore throat or other sources of pain, Michele Sidorenkov, RDN, trained chef and dietitian tells LIVESTRONG.com.
Additionally, in a July 2014 study published in the Archives of Medical Research, researchers found that honey — specifically manuka honey — demonstrated a potential medicinal value by inhibiting the growth of the influenza virus.
Read more: 5 Surprising Ways to Fend Off Cold and Flu
And that's not all: "Honey is great for cold recovery and can act as a natural cough suppressant," Sidorenkov says. In fact, honey may suppress coughing better than diphenhydramine (which is found in over-the-counter medications such as Benadryl, Unisom SleepMelts and Alka-Seltzer Plus Allergy), according to a Cochrane review published in April 2018.
That's why the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends using honey to relieve a cough accompanied by a sore throat for adults and children at least one year of age and older.
Lemon for Colds
There's little scientific evidence that lemons can be effective in alleviating cold symptoms. While it's true that lemons are a great natural source of vitamin C, there's conflicting evidence on whether vitamin C can actually boost the immune system and ward off harmful viruses and bacteria.
A meta-analysis of nine clinical trials, published in BioMed Research International in July 2018, did find that a higher dosage of vitamin C, taken at the onset of a cold helped reduce the duration of the illness and lessen its symptoms. That said, the benefits of vitamin C come from taking it long-term on a daily basis — not just when you're already sick.
The Bottom Line
All scientific evidence (or lack thereof) aside, there's a reason people have been quaffing warm lemon and honey brews for generations. The flavor and scent are soothing and pleasant, and the effect on a sore throat and pesky cough can be comforting.
As with all things, sip on honey-lemon water in moderation, and talk to your doctor if your symptoms fail to improve or get worse.
- Pharmacognosy Research: "Honey and Health: A Review of Recent Clinical Research"
- Archives of Medical Research: "Anti-influenza Viral Effects of Honey In Vitro: Potent High Activity of Manuka Honey"
- Cochrane: "Honey for Acute Cough in Children"
- Centers for Disease Control and Prevention: "Sore Throat"
- BioMed Research International: "Extra Dose of Vitamin C Based on a Daily Supplementation Shortens the Common Cold: A Meta-Analysis of 9 Randomized Controlled Trials"
Is this an emergency? If you are experiencing serious medical symptoms, please see the National Library of Medicine’s list of signs you need emergency medical attention or call 911.