An interesting Israeli study was published in Pediatrics within the past year, comparing how well cough symptoms responded to three different types of honey and a sweet date extract. Three hundred kids aged 1 to 5 received either a honey treatment or the placebo date extract. While the frequency and severity of coughs decreased in all the kids over the subsequent nights, the kids who got honey improved significantly more.
It's not entirely clear why honey would work to calm a cough. One theory is that the nerve fibers involved in the cough reflex are similar to those that respond to sweet tastes. Or it may be that the antioxidant properties of honey are partly responsible for the impact on cold symptoms and coughs.
There is a caveat: Honey absolutely must not be given to children under 12 months old for any reason. This is because of the risk of botulism. After 12 months, the gut has decreased permeability that won't allow botulism spores to pass through.
This was a fairly small study, and though blind and randomized, the measurement of symptom improvement — based on parent questionnaires — was quite subjective. However, it raises the possibility that there may be some benefit to this intervention, and further investigation is warranted. In the meantime, it's good to have alternatives to over-the-counter cold medicines that sleepy parents often reach for. These OTC meds are not without risks. Prior to the FDA recommending that parents not give these medicines to children, there were thousands of ER visits yearly in the U.S., probably related to the side effects of cough and cold medicines. Most likely, the troubles were more related to overdosing on the medicines. I won't be throwing out the purple stuff from my medicine cabinet quite yet, but I may try a few teaspoonfuls of honey first.