Drugstore shelves are lined with cough and cold products, but if you have a cold, you may want to reach into your pantry for a more effective treatment: honey. Yes, the same type of honey that your grandmother or mother may have given you when you were a child. Researchers from Oxford University found that honey could help relieve symptoms of upper respiratory tract infections (URTIs) better than some cold medicines and antibiotics, particularly since most of these infections are viral, something that antibiotics can’t treat.

Colds and other URTIs that affect the sinuses, nose, larynx and pharynx can make you feel wrung out, with symptoms like a sore throat, stuffy nose, cough and congestion. In order to get through the day or to sleep through the night, some people ask their doctors for antibiotics, and 81% of people in the U.S. reach for the over-the-counter cold and allergy.

OTC Products Not Safe for Everyone

Although OTC products are readily available, they can be dangerous for some people. For example, decongestants can cause serious side effects, like higher blood pressure, anxiety and an irregular heartbeat. “These agents should be avoided in patients with heart disease, hypertension, thyroid disease, diabetes, and benign prostatic hyperplasia (BPH),” wrote pharmacists in a review of OTC medications. “Decongestants should not be used in patients who are concurrently taking monoamine oxidase inhibitors [a type of antidepressant]; this combination can result in a life-threatening rise in blood pressure.”

Cough suppressants have their own warnings. If taken too often or in higher than recommended doses, they can cause hallucinations, high blood pressure, and seizures, among other serious effects. Expectorants, on the other hand, have fewer reported adverse events.

Antibiotics, which some patients insist on, are useless in treating viral infections like colds and most URTIs. They won’t reduce symptoms and using them in these situations can contribute to antibiotic resistance.

The Study

The Oxford researchers looked at 14 studies that compared using honey to antibiotics; OTC products, such as antihistamines, cough suppressants, expectorants (products that help clear up mucus); and placebos.

After comparing the studies and their findings, the researchers determined that honey did help relieve symptoms better than OTC products and antibiotics and in 2 studies, the people who used honey had two days fewer symptoms than the others. “We found that honey likely improves URTI symptoms, with the strongest evidence in the context of cough frequency and cough severity. Moderate evidence supports its use in preference to usual care for other URTI symptoms, and most evidence comes from studies of children,” the authors wrote. “Honey is more effective and less harmful than usual care alternatives and avoids causing harm through antimicrobial resistance.”

That being said, there are some times when parents should not give honey to their children. Infants under the age of 1 year should not consume honey because of the risk of infant botulism. Older children can usually consume honey safely because their digestive system has matured. If in doubt, speak with your doctor.

The Take-Away

Before spending money on OTC cold products or asking for antibiotics, you may want to try using honey if you have a cold or URTI. Not only might it help relieve the symptoms, in particular coughing, you would be saving money and slowing the spread of antibiotic resistance.