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June 10, 2008 - 7:30am
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Honey intoxication is caused by the consumption of honey produced from the nectar of rhododendrons. The grayanotoxins (formerly known as andromedotoxins, acetylandromedol, and rhodotoxins) cause the intoxication. The specific grayanotoxins vary with the plant species. Other names associated with the disease is rhododendron poisoning, mad honey intoxication or grayanotoxin poisoning.

Grayanotoxin poisoning most commonly results from the ingestion of grayanotoxin-contaminated honey, although it may result from the ingestion of the leaves, flowers, and nectar of rhododendrons. Not all rhododendrons produce grayanotoxins. Rhododendron ponticum grows extensively on the mountains of the eastern Black Sea area of Turkey. This species has been associated with honey poisoning since 401 BC. A number of toxin species are native to the United States. Of particular importance are the western azalea (Rhododendron occidentale) found from Oregon to southern California, the California rosebay (Rhododendron macrophyllum) found from British Columbia to central California, and Rhododendron albiflorum found from British Columbia to Oregon and in Colorado. In the eastern half of the United States grayanotoxin-contaminated honey may be derived from other members of the botanical family Ericaceae, to which rhododendrons belong. Mountain laurel (Kalmia latifolia) and sheep laurel (Kalmia angustifolia) are probably the most important sources of the toxin.

What are the symptoms of honey intoxication?

The intoxication is rarely fatal and generally lasts for no more than 24 hours. Generally the disease induces dizziness, weakness, excessive perspiration, nausea, and vomiting shortly after the toxic honey is ingested. Other symptoms that can occur are low blood pressure or shock, bradyarrhythima (slowness of the heart beat associated with an irregularity in the heart rhythm), sinus bradycardia (a slow sinus rhythm, with a heart rate less than 60), nodal rhythm (pertaining to a node, particularly the atrioventricular node), Wolff-Parkinson-White syndrome (anomalous atrioventricular excitation) and complete atrioventricular block.

How is honey intoxication treated?

Because the intoxication is rarely fatal and recovery generally occurs within 24 hours, intervention may not be required. Severe low blood pressure usually responds to the administration of fluids and correction of bradycardia. Therapy with vasopressors (agents that stimulate contraction of the muscular tissue of the capillaries and arteries) is only rarely required. Sinus bradycardia and conduction defects usually respond to atropine therapy; however, in at least one instance the use of a temporary pacemaker was required.

How common is honey poisoning?

Grayanotoxin poisoning in humans is rare. However, cases of honey intoxication should be anticipated everywhere. Some may be ascribed to a increase consumption of imported honey. Others may result from the ingestion of unprocessed honey with the increased desire of natural foods in the American diet.

Who is susceptible to honey poisoning?

All people are believed to be susceptible to honey intoxication. The increased desire of the American public for natural (unprocessed) foods, may result in more cases of grayanotoxin poisoning. Individuals who obtain honey from farmers who may have only a few hives are at increased risk. The pooling of massive quantities of honey during commercial processing generally dilutes any toxic substance.


Food and Drug Administration

Please be aware that this information is provided to supplement the care provided by your physician. It is neither intended nor implied to be a substitute for professional medical advice. CALL YOUR HEALTHCARE PROVIDER IMMEDIATELY IF YOU THINK YOU MAY HAVE A MEDICAL EMERGENCY. Always seek the advice of your physician or other qualified health provider prior to starting any new treatment or with any questions you may have regarding a medical condition.

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