My daughter is now 7 months old. I have been adding locally produced honey to my daughter’s food to help with her allergies. In my opinion, this has decreased her allergy like symptoms. My wife and I have had great success decreasing our allergies with this practice. I was told that honey can hurt an infant. Is this true?
Mark Torrans – Pineville, Louisiana
Dr. Greene’s Answer:
Mark, your care for your daughter comes through clearly in your question. Taking the initiative with preventive measures to insure her health and comfort is a very loving act. Getting information regarding the safety and efficacy of these preventive measures is very wise indeed, and may save your daughter’s life.
First, the good news about honey
Like you, I have heard claims that wild honey might reduce allergy symptoms. In fact, today in a local supermarket I saw a jar labeled “100% Natural Raw Honey, Unfiltered Unblended.” This product went on to promise great health benefits.
And indeed, careful scientific study has recognized great medicinal value in honey. Honey has significant, known antibiotic properties (Journal of Pharmacology, Nov 1996). Honey is also a traditional remedy for upset stomach. It has now been proven to prevent the growth of Helicobacter pylori in the stomach — the organism responsible for many ulcers and much abdominal discomfort (J R Soc Med, Jan 1994). Honey also reduces the gastritis caused by drinking too much alcohol (Scandinavian Journal of Gastoenterology, Mar 1991).
Honey has been proven to decrease the cancer-producing effects of many carcinogens, and to be effective in eradicating yeast (Cytologic Genetics, Nov-Dec 1996). Topical honey is known to be useful in treating gangrene, preventing both death and amputation (Surgery, Feb 1993). Burns heal faster when treated with honey than when treated with OpSite burn dressings (British Journal of Plastic Surgery, Jun 1993). There is also less pain, less scarring, and fewer contractures when burns are treated with honey rather than with Silvadene dressings (British Journal of Surgery, Apr 1991). In Russia, honey was even proven to effectively preserve vision when cataracts begin to form in the elderly (Vestn Oftalmol, Nov-Dec 1990). Honey is an amazing substance — but …
Now, the important bad news about honey for infants
As it turns out, NOT giving your daughter honey while she is an infant is an important preventive health measure. It may save her life.
The concern is with infant botulism.
Botulinum spores are found widely in soil, dust, and honey. Adults who swallow botulinum spores are almost never affected. When infants swallow the spores, however, the spores can germinate in their immature gastrointestinal tracts and begin producing botulinum toxin. This has occurred even when the honey was only used to sweeten a pacifier (European Journal of Epidemiology, Nov 1993).
Botulinum toxin is the most poisonous natural substance known to man. The lethal dose is only 0.0000001 mg per kg of body weight — an amount that would be invisible to the naked eye. This tiny amount in the blood stream can cause death within minutes through paralysis of the muscles used in breathing.
Infant botulism has been found on every continent except Africa (Journal of Perinatology (2007) 27, 175–180). In the United States it is most common in the states of California, Utah, and Pennsylvania. While infant botulism can occur from taking in soil or dust (especially vacuum cleaner-bag dust), eating honey is a more easily preventable cause. Corn syrups are not sterilized and may also be a source of contamination (The AAP Red Book, 2000).
Infant botulism can occur any time in the first year of life, but like SIDS it is most common in the first six months. In fact it has been suggested that it might be the cause of death in up to 10% of SIDS cases (Nelson Textbook of Pediatrics; Saunders 1992).
Thankfully, in most instances of infant botulism, the amount of toxin is so incredibly minuscule that the case remains mild. For this reason it is often misdiagnosed.
The first symptom of infant botulism is constipation (which is also a common benign finding in many infants). This can appear 3 to 30 days following ingesting spore-containing honey (The AAP Red Book, 2000). Typically, the parents then observe increasing listlessness, decreased appetite, and weakened cry over the next several days. Nursing mothers often report new engorgement. Sometimes this is the full extent of the disease. If the disease progresses, however, the child moves less and less and might begin to drool from the mouth. Gagging and sucking reflexes diminish. Loss of previous head control is also an important sign. Complete respiratory arrest can occur either suddenly or gradually.
If an otherwise healthy baby develops constipation, followed by weakness and difficulty in sucking, crying, or breathing, then infant botulism should be considered the most likely diagnosis until proven otherwise.
When infant botulism is diagnosed, the average Intensive Care Unit stay for the baby is about one month, typically including mechanical ventilation and continuous tube feedings. This is followed by another 2 weeks on the hospital ward, with a total hospital cost often exceeding $100,000 (Pediatrics; Feb 1991). Thankfully if the botulism is correctly diagnosed and the baby receives appropriate supportive care, almost all will recover fully and completely. The fatality rate for babies who have been hospitalized with botulism is less than 1%. Recently, an antitoxin for infant botulism has been developed and shown to reduce hospital days, mechanical ventilation, and tube feedings (The AAP Red Book, 2000).
The single most effective way to prevent infant botulism is for infants to avoid honey. Breast feeding also appears to lessen the severity of botulism cases.
Therefore, despite other health benefits, honey is an unsafe food for any infant. HONEY SHOULD NOT BE GIVEN TO CHILDREN YOUNGER THAN 12 MONTHS.
Breast feeding, though, is a great way to prevent or decrease allergy symptoms. Breast feeding and minimizing your daughter’s being exposed to potential allergens (such as cigarette smoke, cat hair, house dust, etc.) are the best ways to serve your goals of reducing her allergies and her allergy symptoms. These measures will benefit your daughter now, and the benefit will last for years to come.