Allergies are the worst. Whichever time of the year they pop up for you, seasonal allergies can make your life miserable. You know the symptoms: runny nose, sore throat, coughing, constant sneezing, and terrible sinus pressure. You most likely are heading to the pharmacy to grab some Benadryl or Flonase—but not everyone wants to pop a pill every time your eyes start to itch. (Related: 4 Surprising Things That Are Affecting Your Allergies)
Some people believe that eating raw, local honey may be the elixir for treating seasonal allergies, a type of strategy based on immunotherapy.
“Allergies happen when your body’s immune system reacts to allergens in your environment by attacking them,” says Payel Gupta, M.D., a board-certified allergist and immunologist at ENT & Allergy Associates in New York City. “Allergy immunotherapy helps by essentially training your body to stop attacking harmless allergens. It works by introducing small amounts of the allergens in your body so that your immune system can gradually learn to tolerate them better.”
And honey has been studied as an anti-inflammatory and a cough suppressant, so it makes sense that it might treat allergies as well.
“People believe that eating honey can help because honey contains some pollen—and people are basically thinking that regularly exposing the body to pollen will cause desensitization,” says Dr. Gupta.
But here’s the thing: not all pollen is created equal.
“Humans are mostly allergic to tree, grass, and weed pollen,” says Dr. Gupta. “Bees don’t like the pollen from trees, grass, and weeds, so those pollens aren’t found in high quantities in honey; what’s found is mostly flower pollen.”
Pollen from flowering plants is heavy and just sits on the ground—so it doesn’t cause allergic symptoms like lighter pollens (aka pollen from trees, grasses, and weeds) that is free-floating in the air and enter your nose, eyes, and lungs—and cause allergies, explains Dr. Gupta.
The other problem with the honey allergy treatment theory is that while it may contain pollen, there is no way to know what kind and how much is in it. “With allergy shots, we know exactly how much and which type of pollen is found in them—but we don’t know this information about local honey,” says Dr. Gupta.
And the science doesn’t back it up either.
One study, published back in 2002 in the Annals of Allergy, Asthma & Immunology, showed no difference among allergy sufferers who ate local honey, commercially processed honey, or a honey-flavored placebo.
And in fact, in rare cases, there might actually be a risk to trying local honey as a treatment. “In extremely sensitive individuals, the ingestion of unprocessed honey can result in an immediate allergic reaction involving the mouth, throat, or skin—such as itching, hives or swelling—or even anaphylaxis,” says Dr. Gupta. “Such reactions may be related to either pollen that the person is allergic to or bee contaminants.”
So eating local honey may not be the most effective seasonal allergy treatment. However, there are some things that can help keep symptoms under control.
“The best strategies for battling allergies are taking steps to limit your exposure to the things you’re allergic to and taking the appropriate medications to keep symptoms under control,” says William Reisacher, M.D., allergist, and director of Allergy Services at NewYork-Presbyterian and Weill Cornell Medicine. “If these strategies are not enough, talk to your ENT or general allergist about immunotherapy (or desensitization), a four-year treatment (allergy shots) that can improve symptoms, reduce your medication needs, and improve quality of life for decades.”
You can also try oral immunotherapy. “We have approved oral immunotherapy for only certain pollens right now in the United States—grass and ragweed. These tablets are put under the tongue and the allergens are presented to the immune system through the mouth. It’s a concentrated amount of allergen that we know will not cause a reaction but will help to desensitize your body,” says Dr. Gupta.
TL; DR? Keep using honey in your tea, but maybe don’t count on it as the answer to your allergy relief prayers. Sorry folks.
By Emily Shiffer