Hibatullah Abuelgasim at Oxford University Medical School, who led the research, said: “Honey is cheap, readily available, and has virtually no side effects, and doctors can recommend it as a suitable alternative to antibiotics, which are often prescribed for these types of infection, even though they aren’t suitable.
“Upper respiratory tract infections (URTIs) are the most frequent reason for antibiotic prescription. Since the majority of URTIs are viral, antibiotic prescription is both ineffective and inappropriate.”
URTIs, such as the common cold, sinusitis, tonsillitis or laryngitis – which affect the sinuses, throat, airways or lungs and are spread through sneezing and coughing – are usually treated at home with over the counter medication.
Miss Abuelgasim and her team trawled through medical databases to find relevant studies which compared honey, and mixtures which included it as an ingredient, with pharmaceutical treatments such as antihistamines, expectorants, cough suppressants and painkillers.
Nearly 15 clinical trials involving over 1,700 people of different ages were pooled together and analysed by the researchers.
Miss Abuelgasim said: “Since the majority of URTIs are viral, antibiotic prescription is both ineffective and inappropriate.
“When clinicians wish to prescribe for URTI, we would recommend honey as an alternative to antibiotics as it is more effective and less harmful than usual care alternatives, and avoids causing harm through antimicrobial resistance.”
It is now widely recognised that the more people use antibiotics to treat infections, the more resistant the bacteria become.
The phenomenon – known as antimicrobial resistance (AMR) – has been described as a “threat to global public health”, by the World Health Organisation.
The work of the humble bee could prove to be one of humanity’s defences against the threat.
Using honey’s natural nectar instead of antibiotics could help slow AMR and save millions of pounds.
However, the researchers pointed out that honey is a complex substance and not a uniform product.
Only two of the studies used what is called a “dummy comparator treatment” or placebo – not enough to draw a definite conclusion as to its healing properties.
Nevertheless, Miss Abuelgasim concluded: “Honey is a frequently used lay remedy that is well known to patients. It is also cheap, easy to access, and has limited harms.”
In other words, Granny knows best.