Allergists Say Eating Local Honey Probably Won't Cure Your Seasonal Allergies—Here's Why

Swallowing spoonfuls of honey isn't quite the antidote you think it is.

Anyone with allergic rhinitis—the medical term for "hay fever" or seasonal allergies—knows living with allergies can be extremely disruptive. In addition to sneezing, coughing, congestion, and/or a runny nose, according to the American College of Allergy, Asthma, and Immunology, symptoms of seasonal allergies can also cause unbearably itchy eyes, intense sinus pressure and headaches, a sore throat, wheezing, and severe fatigue. In short: They're no joke.

To keep these pesky symptoms at bay, there are tons of over-the-counter allergy medications out there, of course, but many people also swear by certain home remedies too—and eating local honey is one of the most common recommendations. But what's the theory behind this sweet treatment, and is there any truth to it? We asked several allergists to help us separate theory from reality.

What's the Idea Behind Eating Local Honey for Allergy Relief?

Essentially, the hypothesis of eating local honey as a way to relieve seasonal allergies is similar in theory to immunotherapy, which typically takes the forms of pharmaceutical allergy shots or drops. "The idea is that by using small amounts of allergen and presenting these to the body, over time, the body will get used to them. Thus, the body won't cause a reaction when the person is exposed to them," explains Katie Marks-Cogan, MD, FAAAAI, FACAAI, a board-certified physician specializing in allergies, asthma, and sinus disease and the chief allergist at Ready, Set, Food!.

However, in reality, there are key differences between allergen immunotherapy and eating local honey. "With immunotherapy, you're given small amounts of what we know you're allergic to, [whereas] with honey, you're getting random types of pollen from flowers and plants that you may or may not be allergic to," says Tania Elliott, MD, FAAAAI, FACAAI, a physician dual-board-certified in internal medicine and allergy.

While local honey may contain pollen from the immediate environment, Dr. Marks-Cogan says that it's not the kind of pollen that allergists are referring to when discussing seasonal allergies, which is "pollen from trees, grasses, and weeds, and is wind-driven," she says. "Pollen that bees come in contact with when hunting for nectar is flower pollen."

Olivia Barr

In fact, from a safety perspective, it's a good thing that very few, if any, of the common pollen allergens that cause seasonal allergies make it into local honey, says Clifford W. Bassett, M.D., FACAAI, FAAAAI, the director of Allergy and Asthma Care of New York, a spokesperson for the Asthma and Allergy Foundation of America (AAFA), and a member of its Medical Scientific Council. If they did, it would be as contaminants, and actually "might trigger an allergic reaction," he explains.

Another major difference between medically administered immunotherapy and eating honey at home is that when a person with allergies is treated by a doctor using clinically established forms of immunotherapy, they're getting an exact dose that is increased over time. "With honey, there's no way to measure how much pollen is present, so it's not going to build up enough in your system to create real tolerance or cure the way that immunotherapy does," Dr. Elliott adds.

So, Is Eating Local Honey for Allergies a Myth?

Dr. Bassett confirms that, yes, "this is a common myth, and unfortunately, honey does not improve seasonal allergies."

"There is very little scientific evidence to suggest that eating local honey can treat or cure seasonal allergy symptoms," Dr. Marks-Cogan says. "While there is anecdotal evidence that it can help, of the available clinical studies, the results are conflicting and the sample sizes are very small so it's hard to generalize them to the U.S. population."

The primary study cited as evidence that this home remedy works was conducted in Malaysia in 2010. There were only 40 participants—half of whom took loratadine (Claritin) and honey, while the other half took loratadine and a honey-flavored corn syrup placebo. After four weeks, both groups experienced the same level of relief from their seasonal allergy symptoms. Then after eight weeks, the group ingesting honey showed more improvement. But at that stage, they were taking very high daily doses of honey—not to mention allergy medication as well—so the results are not exactly conclusive.

Dr. Bassett also points out that other studies have compared people who ate local honey, commercially processed honey, or a honey-flavored placebo, and found no differences in allergy symptoms among them.

Dr. Elliott does point out that, in theory, ingesting local honey could help seasonal allergies—"if the quantities of pollen were exact and matched up exactly with what you are allergic to." But it's not currently possible to reach that level of precision with a jar of wildflower honey you purchased at your local farmers' market. "You really are not going to be able to get to the therapeutic quantities you need by just ingesting honey," Dr. Elliott explains. "The amount of pollen present is not reliable. Some people swear by a spoonful per day, but I suspect it's more from the soothing throat benefit of the honey itself."

Does Local Honey Have Any Allergy-Related Benefits?

While some who eat local honey and report an improvement in their allergy symptoms are likely experiencing the placebo effect, Dr. Marks-Cogan says the honey could be helping in other ways. "There is evidence demonstrating that honey is a cough suppressant, and that it may be anti-inflammatory," she explains. "So, tea with honey may actually help temporarily stop a cough, so it is not being used as a placebo in that case."

Are There Any Risks?

Let's say you genuinely believe that ingesting local honey improves your allergy symptoms. You may think there's no harm in continuing to eat it therapeutically, anyway—but that's not necessarily the case, Dr. Marks-Cogan says, particularly if the honey is raw.

"Raw local honey is not filtered and processed the same way as the honey in stores. So it could contain flower pollen, bee venom, bacteria, or other contaminants," she says. "A person could potentially have anaphylaxis (a severe allergic reaction) if the raw honey they ate contained any bee venom that they are allergic to."

It's also important to remember that honey is primarily made up of sugars and water, and even if you're taking it therapeutically, it's high in sugar and counts toward your daily sugar intake.

The Best Ways to Deal with Seasonal Allergies

For a proven, effective way to treat allergy symptoms, Dr. Elliott recommends trying any of the available OTC treatments. These include 24-hour antihistamines like Xyzal, Zyrtec, Allegra, and Claritin, as well as nasal steroid sprays like Nasacort, Flonase, and Rhinocort.

Alternatively, if seasonal allergies are making you miserable, and OTC medicines and other at-home treatments aren't helping, Dr. Basset recommends making an appointment with an allergist for individualized and effective allergy care. This may include clinically administered allergy shots, which contain controlled amounts of your specific allergen to achieve desensitization and improve seasonal allergy symptoms.

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