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Last updated January 10, 2020. 3 minute read

Honey as a treatment for allergies: fact vs fiction

The idea behind eating local honey as a remedy for seasonal allergies is that it might work similarly to an allergy shot. When bees produce honey, it contains small amounts of pollen from nearby flowers. Consuming that honey—and therefore the pollen—may combat seasonal allergies in a certain location. Ingesting pollen from a certain region, the thinking goes, may make you less sensitive to it. It’s an interesting idea that, unfortunately, isn’t proven.

Self Written by Michael Martin
Reviewed by Dr. Mike Bohl, MD, MPH

In an era of hype around eating clean and living green, it can be tempting to look for natural remedies to common health issues. One of the most common and annoying health conditions some of us face is seasonal allergies—each year, like clockwork. Many people believe that eating local honey can soothe allergy symptoms; the folk remedy has been handed down for generations. But does honey really work for seasonal allergies? Here’s the theory, and what the science says.

Vitals

  • Eating local honey (a.k.a. raw honey or unprocessed honey) is widely believed to be beneficial to people who have seasonal allergies.
  • Unfortunately, that’s not scientifically proven.
  • The theory is that eating local honey will expose an allergic person to small amounts of local pollen, which will desensitize them to that allergen.
  • Eating honey can pose risks to people with severe allergies or to children.

What are seasonal allergies?

Seasonal allergies can be a source of misery for the 40 to 60 million Americans who are affected by allergic rhinitis every year. Also referred to as “hay fever,” seasonal allergies can cause allergic rhinitis, an inflammation in the nasal canal that produces the classic allergy symptoms of sneezing, a runny nose, itchy or watery eyes, and coughing.

We tend to think of allergy season as beginning in the spring when pollen from blooming trees and flowering plants peaks. (In fact, hay fever got its name from the hay-cutting season, which would cause some farmers to have an allergic reaction.) But seasonal allergies can surface year-round, not just in peak seasons like the spring and fall. There are indoor allergens (dust, mold) as well as outdoor allergens, which can produce similar symptoms and have sufferers looking for relief.
 
Existing treatments for seasonal allergies include over-the-counter and prescription medications, such as antihistamines, corticosteroids, decongestants, nasal sprays, and eye drops. Allergy shots are a form of immunotherapy, in which regular injections of tiny amounts of allergens aim to acclimate the immune system and curtail the allergic reaction. And some people pursue natural remedies for their seasonal allergies. One of the most commonly mentioned in recent years is local honey.

How can honey help with seasonal allergies?


The idea behind eating local honey as a remedy for seasonal allergies is that it might work similarly to an allergy shot. When bees produce honey, it contains small amounts of pollen from nearby flowers. Consuming that honey—and therefore the pollen—may combat seasonal allergies in a certain location. Ingesting pollen from a certain region, the thinking goes, may make you less sensitive to it.

It’s an interesting idea that, unfortunately, isn’t proven. Research is scant and inconclusive. While one small study in Malaysia found that honey consumption was beneficial to allergic rhinitis, an earlier small study at the University of Connecticut found no benefit in allergy sufferers who consumed local honey, commercially processed honey, or placebo.

There’s a fundamental weakness in eating honey as an allergy remedy: The amount of pollen that bees deposit into honey can vary widely. So there’s no standard for how much pollen you’re consuming—it might not even be the kind that causes your allergy symptoms—so relying on honey to assuage your hay fever is kind of a shot in the dark. 

“There is no scientific proof that eating local honey will improve seasonal allergies,” says the American College of Allergy, Asthma, and Immunology.

Potential risks of local honey as an allergy treatment

And using local honey as an allergy remedy comes with risks. Honey may trigger anaphylaxis (a life-threatening allergic reaction in which the throat and mouth swell, impairing breathing) in people with severe allergies. And consuming local honey is not safe for infants, as raw honey can contain spores of the bacterium that causes botulism. (Processed store-bought honey can contain those spores as well, so the CDC recommends that children under the age of twelve months should not be given honey at all.)