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ALEX CHADWICK, host:

Here is an old medical remedy. You've got a cough: take a spoonful of honey. It's one of the things your mom might have told you that was probably dismissed pretty much everywhere by modern medicine until now.

Joining us is pediatrician Dr. Sydney Spiesel. He writes the Medical Examiner column for the online magazine Slate. And he knows a thing or two about cough medicine. Syd, welcome back to the program.

Dr. SYDNEY SPIESEL (Columnist, Slate magazine): Thanks. Glad to be here.

CHADWICK: So there's a new study on this, honey remedy? Do tell us.

Dr. SPIESEL: Well. The new study on honey remedy probably came as result of the fact that people have, in the last few years, become very skeptical of the traditional treatments, cough medicines for kids. And so some people at the University of Pennsylvania decided to look at an old remedy, which is actually been in wide use for - in many cultures for many years, which is just give kids a spoonful of honey. And I have to say, you know, we're always worried medical reports that are sponsored by pharmaceutical companies, and we always take them with a grain of salt. So I do feel obliged to point out that this one was sponsored by the National Honey Board.

CHADWICK: And it found that, in fact, honey is somewhat effective in helping kids with coughs. Why would that be?

Dr. SPIESEL: Well, the first thing is the study was done by taking about 100 kids and dividing them into three piles. One pile was given honey. Another pile was given a cough medicine that was thickened, gooey and sweet and flavored to taste like honey but actually didn't contain honey. It contained a standard cough suppressant, which is the major ingredient in most cough syrups that are out there now. And the third group of kids got nothing at all.

And the result was that the kids who got the honey might have done slightly better than the kids that got the traditional cough syrup. And both groups seem to do better, at least in terms of parent report, compared with the kids who got nothing at all. So the question is where does the honey's benefit come from? And the truth is that we don't have the foggiest idea.

CHADWICK: It works about as well as the best cough suppressant we've been able to develop and we're not sure why?

Dr. SPIESEL: We're not sure why, but I also need to point out that the best cough suppressant we've been able to develop is not that good itself. And it may be that the kind of thick, gooey, viscous material tends to smooth down the lining of the throat, and maybe that's how it works.

CHADWICK: Syd, you know, medicines come with all kinds of cautions. I don't imagine there are any actual cautions about honey, are there?

Dr. SPIESEL: There actually are. Fresh honey should not ever be given to kids under about a year, because there are some cases of a disease called infant botulism which has been reported in young infants getting fresh honey. Honey, they can be used to, you know, in baking. But no fresh honey should ever be given to kids less than a year old.

CHADWICK: Thanks so much for your contributions today.

Dr. SPIESEL: Thank you. Bye-bye.

CHADWICK: Opinion for Dr. Sydney Spiesel of Yale Medical School. And you can read his Medical Examiner column at Slate.com

Also this, dear listeners. In a recent NPR/Harvard/Kaiser poll, parents were asked if the controversy over cough and cold syrups is changing their attitudes toward medicine. And you can get the results of this poll online at our Web site, npr.org.

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