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Can honey help alleviate seasonal allergy symptoms? Experts weigh in

Spoiler alert: Eating the sticky stuff isn’t going to stop you from sneezing every time you step outside.
Honey hasn't been scientifically proven to help treat seasonal allergies, but it does offer other health benefits you should know about.
Honey hasn't been scientifically proven to help treat seasonal allergies, but it does offer other health benefits you should know about. Shutterstock

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Runny nose. Itchy skin. A cough that won’t go away. These are all symptoms of seasonal allergies, which about a quarter of adults, and one in five children, experience in the United States, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Because they can be frustrating to deal with, many people will try almost anything to feel better, including homeopathic remedies. One of the most common is ingesting honey, like the kind you stir into your tea or drizzle over baked goods. But does honey actually help treat seasonal allergies? We consulted experts to find out.

SKIP AHEAD Does honey offer health benefits? | The best honey to keep at home | How to treat seasonal allergies

Does honey help treat seasonal allergies?

“Ingesting honey has not been scientifically proven to help with seasonal allergies,” says Dr. Ruchi S. Gupta, a professor of pediatrics and medicine at Northwestern University’s Feinberg School of Medicine.  A few small studies have researched treating seasonal allergies with honey. Still, results are inconsistent and sample sizes are too small to make definitive conclusions, says Dr. Carolyn Kwiat, an assistant professor at Mount Sinai’s Icahn School of Medicine in the allergy and immunology department. Some people believe local honey effectively treats seasonal allergies due to their personal experiences, but there’s not much scientific evidence to support their claims.

Why doesn’t honey help treat seasonal allergies?

The idea that honey helps treat seasonal allergies specifically centers around ingesting raw local honey, which is minimally processed honey produced in the area where someone lives. “The belief comes from the idea that raw honey contains pollen local to where you live and that exposing your immune system to local pollen will lessen your sensitivity to it,” thus reducing symptoms, says Gupta.  While this may make sense in theory, it doesn’t pan out in practice. That’s because the pollen bees collect from flowers, which honey can contain traces of, differs from the pollen that causes seasonal allergies.

People develop allergies to wind-pollinated plants, meaning plants that release microscopic pollen into the air like trees, grasses and weeds, says Kwiat. Some plants have pollen that’s too heavy for the air to carry, so it’s pollinated by animals like bees instead. Since that type of pollen never makes it into the air, it doesn’t cause allergies. And since bees don’t pollinate wind-pollinated plants, very little, if any, of that type of pollen makes it into honey, so you’re not exposed to it when you ingest it, says Melanie Carver, chief mission officer of the Asthma and Allergy Foundation of America.

Does honey offer health benefits?

While honey doesn’t help with seasonal allergies, it offers other health benefits since it’s a natural anti-inflammatory and antioxidant, says Gupta. Tea with honey, for example, is a homeopathic remedy (meaning an alternative medicine) for a sore throat and cough, says Carver. You can also ingest a small spoonful when you have a sore throat or cough if you don’t like drinking tea.

Who can eat honey?

Honey is safe for adults and children over one-year-old to consume. However, babies younger than one year old should not consume honey because it contains a bacteria called Clostridium that can cause infant botulism, a dangerous infectious disease, says Carver.

The best honey to keep at home

Keeping a jar of honey at home is useful for treating a sore throat or sweetening foods and drinks. In our guide to honey, experts told us to prioritize buying options that are unfiltered, meaning they’re not subjected to heat and stripped of their nutrients prior to packaging, as well as pure, meaning they don’t contain any artificial additives or fillers. All of the honeys we recommend below are unfiltered and pure, per expert guidance.

What are seasonal allergies?

If you’re interested in learning whether honey alleviates seasonal allergy symptoms, you or someone you know likely experience some. But what are seasonal allergies?

“A seasonal allergy, also known as “hay fever” or “seasonal allergic rhinitis,” is a condition in which the immune system overreacts to pollen from trees, grasses and weeds being released into the air during certain times of the year,” says Gupta. Pollen can travel for miles in the air, so it’s hard to escape, even living in an urban environment.

When people tend to experience seasonal allergies depends on where they live and their local climate, says Kwiat. But generally, allergy seasons occur in three waves and are related to the different types of pollen prevalent in different parts of the year, says Carver.

  • Spring, when tree pollen is the primary seasonal allergen
  • Summer, when grass pollen is the primary seasonal allergen
  • Fall, when ragweed (a type of weed) is the primary seasonal allergen

People can be allergic to one or more types of pollen, so seasons during which they experience symptoms can overlap, says Carver. Mold allergies are also seasonal for some. Outdoor molds tend to increase in the fall when plant matter decays or during “wet seasons,” meaning periods that experience higher average rainfall.

What symptoms are associated with seasonal allergies?

If you’re sensitive to certain allergens, they’ll cause an immune response when your eyes, skin, nose or respiratory system come into contact with them, says Kwiat. That immune response includes symptoms like itchy eyes, tearing, nasal congestion, a runny nose, sneezing, hives, wheezing, shortness of breath and a cough. Often, seasonal allergy symptoms are similar to that of a common cold, but allergy symptoms can start suddenly and persist for weeks if left untreated. A hallmark allergy symptom is itching, which does not occur with a common cold, says Carver.

How do you treat seasonal allergies?

The first step in treating seasonal allergies is consulting your doctor, says Gupta. They can help you create a treatment plan, which you should start before the pollen season begins to get the most relief from medication. Common treatments include over-the-counter nasal sprays, eye drops, decongestants, antihistamines or prescription medication. Allergy shots and immunotherapy are other types of long-term treatments, she says.

It’s also important to try and avoid allergens that trigger your symptoms when possible. That’s easier said than done since pollen is especially unavoidable. However, be mindful of the pollen count and consider spending limited amounts of time outdoors on days when the pollen count is particularly high, says Kwiat. You can track the pollen count using weather apps or websites. Also, try to keep your windows closed, use air purifiers, shower or bathe before you go to bed to get allergens off your skin and wash your bedding frequently, says Gupta. Wearing a face mask and sunglasses outside also helps limit the amount of pollen that gets into your eyes, nose, mouth and airways, says Carver.

Meet our experts

At NBC Select, we work with experts who have specialized knowledge and authority based on relevant training and/or experience. We also take steps to ensure that all expert advice and recommendations are made independently and with no undisclosed financial conflicts of interest.

  • Dr. Carolyn Kwiat is an assistant professor at Mount Sinai’s Icahn School of Medicine in the allergy and Immunology department.
  • Dr. Ruchi S. Gupta is a professor of pediatrics and medicine at Northwestern University’s Feinberg School of Medicine. She’s also the founding director of the Center for Food Allergy & Asthma Research and a clinical attending at the Ann & Robert H. Lurie Children’s Hospital of Chicago.
  • Melanie Carver is the chief mission officer of the Asthma and Allergy Foundation of America.

Why trust NBC Select?

Zoe Malin is an associate updates editor at NBC Select who writes about wellness, including stories on at-home Covid tests, KN95 masks and how to treat blisters. She also covers the food and beverage space, authoring articles on honey, chocolate, salt and olive oil. For this article, she interviewed three experts about whether honey is an effective treatment for seasonal allergies and rounded up the best honey to keep at home.

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