If you type "lemon and honey water for ..." into an online search engine, it'll offer to auto-complete the phrase with many ailments: flu, nausea, step throat, sore throat, cough and so on. Although lemon and honey water isn't a guaranteed panacea, it may provide some benefits.
Although drinking lemon and honey in hot water is a well-known folk remedy for the common cold, there's no hard-and-fast scientific data on how well it works. However, there have been a few studies on honey and lemon individually.
Benefits of Lemon and Honey Water
A European study published in the 2016 issue of Evidence-Based Complementary and Alternative Medicine found that a mixture of lemon and honey in hot water was the most common tea used as self-care for the common cold. However, it didn't comment on that remedy's efficacy.
The truth is that there's very little clinical data on the benefits of drinking lemon and honey when you're ill. But what limited data there is becomes much easier to find when you investigate the two ingredients separately.
For example, in the December 2014 issue of Canadian Family Physician, a review of available studies showed that in some situations, honey may work as well as over-the-counter cough syrups. The authors noted that in addition to its demulcent and antioxidant effects, honey also increases cytokine release, which might have additional antimicrobial effects.
As the UK National Health Service notes, several of that country's health authorities recommend using honey first for a cough, before antibiotics.
There's no clinical data about using lemon juice to treat a cough or cold, but as the National Institutes of Health explains, there has been some research, with mixed results, on using vitamin C to prevent colds or shorten their duration. Per the USDA, the juice of one lemon has just under 20 milligrams of vitamin C in it.
Although honey may have many beneficial effects, the UK National Health Service and many other medical authorities warn that it's not considered safe for children under the age of 1 year old.
Opting for hot drinks when sick may have an effect too. In a study of 30 subjects that was published in the December 2008 issue of Rhinology, researchers found that a hot drink provided more relief from many symptoms of flu and the common cold (sore throat, sneezing and cough) than drinking a cold beverage.
The hot beverage also made the subjects feel as though their nasal airflow had improved, even if objectively it had not. And finally, drinking lemon and honey in water — or any sort of water — can also help you keep hydrated.
Read more: Can Sugar Worsen a Cold?
Other Potential Benefits
It's more challenging to find clinical data on other types of benefits of honey and lemon water when sick, although there is some evidence that the smell of lemon, at least, might soothe certain symptoms.
According to a study of 100 pregnant women that was published in the March 2014 issue of the Iranian Red Crescent Medical Journal, lemon inhalation aromatherapy helped notably reduce the women's nausea. There is no direct clinical data on using both lemon and honey for nausea.
Read more: Cold Remedy Smoothies
Honey may be beneficial for even more conditions. A literature review published in the April-June 2017 issue of Pharmacognosy Research highlights honey's antioxidant, anti-inflammatory, antimicrobial and immunomodulatory effects.
The researchers also note that honey shows potential therapeutic effects for diabetes, neurological diseases, cardiovascular disease, asthma and even cancer. However, more research is needed to substantiate exactly what role honey might play in treating any of these conditions.
Ultimately, while the popular folk remedy of drinking honey and lemon in hot water may be worth a shot, there isn't enough data to prove whether it's really effective — or, conversely, whether it has any negative effects. If you're sick, it's always best to consult your physician for appropriate diagnosis and treatment.
Is This an Emergency?
- Rhinology: "The Effects of a Hot Drink on Nasal Airflow and Symptoms of Common Cold and Flu"
- National Institutes of Health: "Vitamin C"
- Evidence-Based Complementary and Alternative Medicine: "Self-Care for Common Colds by Primary Care Patients: A European Multicenter Survey on the Prevalence and Patterns of Practices—The COCO Study"
- Canadian Family Physician: "Honey for Treatment of Cough in Children"
- Iranian Red Crescent Medical Journal: "The Effect of Lemon Inhalation Aromatherapy on Nausea and Vomiting of Pregnancy: A Double-Blinded, Randomized, Controlled Clinical Trial"
- Pharmacognosy Research: "Honey and Health: A Review of Recent Clinical Research"
- UK National Health Service: "Honey, Not Antibiotics, Recommended for Coughs"
- USDA: "Lemon Juice, Raw"