Lemon, honey, and alcohol: Which is best for sore throat?

As sore throats are making the rounds through the Medical News Today editorial office, the debate is rife: what is the best drink to soothe the pain? More importantly, whether it’s alcohol, spices, or lemon and honey, what is the scientific basis for our home remedy of choice?
drinks for sore throat
Find out which drinks our editorial team use to soothe their sore throats.

A few weeks ago, we found out that both hot and cold drinks or ice pops can help alleviate the pain of a sore throat that most of us will be familiar with during the annual cold and flu season.

Now, the debate has taken another turn: where do alcohol, spices — such as cinnamon and ginger — and lemon and honey fit into the mix?

To find out, I first conducted a scientific survey among the office staff to highlight our drinks-of-choice, followed by a deep dive into the scientific evidence underpinning our beliefs.


Lemon and honey – our ‘go-to’ remedy

Among the MNT editorial office staff, a home-made hot drink with fresh lemon juice and honey was the most popular choice, with a staggering 62 percent citing it as one of their ‘go-to’ drinks, while hot lemon on its own took second place with 31 percent.

Our faith in lemon and honey stems from knowledge passed from generation to generation and reports in the media.

“Hot water with lemon and honey – I’m sure I’ve read it somewhere,” and “This is mostly based on family and friends recommending it, although reinforced by studies and things based on getting vitamin C from lemon, and the antibacterial/antimicrobial elements of honey,” are just two of the examples that my colleagues cited.

Lemon is popular in drinks because of its high levels of vitamin C. Interest in the use of vitamin C to treat the common cold goes all the way back to the 1940s, but results from the various clinical trials conducted since then varies.

While earlier studies reported that taking vitamin C reduced how long a cold would stick around, the current consensus is that for the general population, it is ineffective.

However, there are certain groups of individuals who may benefit from vitamin C when a cold is looming. These include people who undertake severe physical exercise, those exposed to cold environments, and those with vitamin C levels below the recommended levels.

But there is no evidence that it soothes a sore throat.

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Honey, viruses, and pain

Honey is known for its antimicrobial properties. One study found that Manuka honey is effective in reducing how quickly the influenza virus — the cause of the flu — reproduces.

When it comes to pain, honey has been studied mostly in the context of tonsillectomy, and research has shown that honey is effective. Bingo.

Other studies have looked into the effectiveness of honey to reduce cough, associated with the common cold and flu. Here, several clinical trials have shown a small improvement in nighttime cough and sleep quality in children over the age of 1 year.

So, honey probably helps with the pain and the lemon may or may not help speed up recovery from our symptoms.

Alcoholic drinks ‘joint second’ favorite

While lemon and honey was the clear winner in our race to beat a sore throat, alcoholic drinks took joint second place, with 31 percent of MNT editorial folk saying hot or cold alcoholic drinks soothe their sore throat.

The reasons for this ranged from “alcohol to ‘disinfect’ my throat,” to “alcohol is [an] anesthetic after all.”

While there is evidence that alcohol can kill the viruses responsible for the common cold and flu, this is really only the case for alcoholic hand gels and sanitizers or for lozenges that contain alcohol.

Alcohol does have anesthetic effects, but there is no scientific evidence of the benefits that we attribute to various alcoholic concoctions in calming our sore throat. It is purely speculation.

However, alcohol is a vasodilator. So, if you are feeling cold and achy due to a viral cold or flu infection, an alcoholic drink can bring a rosy tint to your cheeks and help you feel warm and fuzzy at the same time.

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Spices bring up the rear

The final category in the office survey was spiced or mulled drinks.

Ginger was cited by 23 percent of my colleagues as an effective method to soothe a sore throat. Indeed, ginger has been shown to reduce pain.

In one study, researchers used computer modeling to find out if ginger could prevent influenza infection — particularly the H1N1 strain that causes swine flu. The team found that the active ingredient in ginger prevents the virus from infecting human cells.

The final throat-soother on our list is cinnamon, which was preferred by 8 percent of the office.

“This is based on trying it out and reading about the properties of cinnamon,” was one of the reasons for choosing this popular spice.

According to one study, a component found in the essential oil contained in cinnamon inhibited the growth of the influenza A virus in vitro and in vivo. But there are no specific studies looking at cinnamon and sore throat.


The verdict

The MNT office is, of course, too small to give us a real snapshot of the general population. But we are not far off some of the findings of a large study published in 2016.

According to the research, 99 percent of people use some form of home remedy when they experience the trials and tribulations that come with the common cold.

Similar to the results of our office survey, honey was a clear favorite on the list, which 42 percent of participants looked to for relief.

While it’s important to remember that the scientific basis for all of the home remedies preferred by the MNT office staff is fairly slim, hot drinks of any kind of description have been shown to have the best effect on sore throats.

As Prof. Ron Eccles — previously the director of the Common Cold Centre in the School of Biosciences at the University of Cardiff in the United Kingdom — explained to me, hot drinks — especially hot, sweet drinks — help to lubricate a sore throat and soothe the pain.

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