When hay fever hits, allergy sufferers are desperate to relieve the labored breathing, runny nose, itching or inflamed eyes and other symptoms that make life miserable.
Many of them head to the nearest pharmacy to buy medical treatments such as antihistamines and inhalers. But others look for less established remedies.
One of the most popular of these alternative therapies is honey made by local bees.
Dan Harris’ bees make honey near Danielsville, a small town in Northeast Georgia, and he sells it at the Athens Farmers Market. His Booger Hill Bee Company brand is well known in the area.
Harris says he doesn’t know whether his local honey actually does anything to relieve hay fever, but he estimates that one-third of his customers buy it for that purpose.
The idea is that eating local honey helps build up a sort of tolerance or resistance to the local pollens — which are some of the most common triggers for seasonal allergies.
“I take a teaspoon every morning just to see if it will help me with my allergies,” says Harris. He still has a scratchy throat sometimes, and occasionally opening up a hive triggers his allergies. He always carries Benadryl in case that happens.
“That Benadryl’s been riding in my pocket now for about three months,” Harris said. “So, it’s like that honey’s taking the edge off.”
A tasty germ-killer
Can local honey really relieve seasonal allergy symptoms? The science is unclear.
A 2006 opinion paper released by the European Food Safety Authority says that while honey reportedly calms sore throats and some other symptoms, there’s not enough evidence to establish that consuming honey causes improvements.
Only a few experiments have compared honey with other treatments for hay fever, and these have failed to find that honey has any measurable effects.
Although honey may or may not help with allergies, there’s been a recent increase in studies examining its antibacterial properties. And some have found evidence that it works.
Laura Polanco, an Athens-based herbalist, uses honey herself and recommends it to her clients for a variety of purposes, including allergy relief. “It’s an antibacterial, so it kills anything gross on a wound,” she said. “Honey is one of those very important medicines.”
People have been eating honey for thousands of years. For much of human history it was the most common way to sweeten food. Today, many people like it simply because of the taste, or because it’s more natural than refined sugars or artificial sweeteners.
Honey has also long been advocated as a medicine. Depending on the variety of honey, its supposed medicinal properties range from healing ulcers to lowering the risk of cardiovascular disease.
Some people who work in professional kitchens say honey works well as a painkiller when applied to small burns, cuts or scrapes. Of course, many people prefer cold water for small burns and conventional medicines and dressings for cuts.
Recent studies confirm that, as Polanco said, honey has antibacterial properties. Smearing it on a wound may reduce the likelihood of infection.
Honey’s antibacterial effects are partially a result of its high sugar content. Because honey is typically either a saturated or super-saturated solution, meaning all or nearly all water molecules are bound to sugar molecules, there are not many leftover water molecules available for harmful bacteria to bind to.
Some types of honey even produce their own hydrogen peroxide due to an enzyme provided by the bees themselves, which also discourages bacteria from flourishing. If bacteria can’t grow, wounds are more likely to stay clean and free of infection.
Someday science may prove — or disprove — that honey can relieve the symptoms of seasonal allergies. Until then, many allergy sufferers will continue to use it, partly because it’s delicious and partly because they believe it works. Some insist they feel relief.
When the Athens Farmers Market reopened for spring on the first Saturday morning in April, the signs that it was allergy season were plain to see. Tall pines were releasing clouds of yellow dust, and catkins were forming on the nearby oaks, waiting for the wind to disperse their pollen.
And Dan Harris sold out of Booger Hill honey long before noon.
Lauren Schumacker is pursuing her master’s in health and medical journalism at the University of Georgia. She also holds a certificate in culinary arts and enjoys writing about all things food-related.