My Well-Being >> Health >> Health - Eat >> Cough Soothers

Cough Soothers

by Dr. Anne Meneghetti, MD on March 25, 2013

Coughing clears the airways of irritants and excess mucus, and helps prevent infections.  However, when coughing disrupts your peace and irritates those around you, it’s natural to look for a remedy. Cough has many causes, including asthma, reflux, medications, and infections, so it’s better to treat the root cause when possible; explore potential causes of chronic cough. Surprisingly, there’s not a lot of evidence to support most treatments for cough due to colds or acute bronchitis.  Some cough remedies might be effective, but there is not much high quality research to prove it.  When it comes to a short-term cough due to cold, flu, or viral bronchitis, consider these cough soothers for adults:

  • Honey.  There’s evidence that honey is more effective than some over-the-counter cough medicines.  Take it straight or mix it in hot water or herbal tea. Add a squeeze of fresh lemon or lime if you have it on hand. Infants under 1 year old cannot digest the spores in honey.
  • Cough suppressants.  Dextromethorphan is commonly used to reduce cough by acting on the brain’s cough center; however, research results have been variable.
  • Expectorants.  Agents like guaifenesin are intended to thin out mucus to make it easier to cough up, however research has not shown consistent benefits.
  • Cough drops and lozenges. Many include ingredients to numb the upper airway and provide moisture; however, research is limited. Hard candies may be just as effective.
  • Pain relievers. Pain due to coughing or sore throat may benefit, but these do little to stop a cough.
  • Decongestant plus sedating antihistamines. Cough due to post-nasal drip from allergies or sinusitis might benefit from these combinations; however, research is limited, and side effects can occur. Antihistamines can dry out secretions, making them even harder to cough up.
  • Prescription drugs.  Certain inhalers may help cough caused by asthma or certain coughs that linger after infections. Most bronchitis is viral, so antibiotics have no role. Codeine may reduce chronic coughs, but side effects can be significant; it is not recommended for common colds.
  • Herbs.  While conclusive evidence is lacking, some herbs have been used traditionally to loosen mucus as well as moisturize and soothe airways. If you’d like to give these a try, consider taking them as hot tea. Peppermint, eucalyptus, marshmallow, slippery elm, and thyme are traditional choices.
  • Comfort measures. Warm humid air soothes the airways. Try a steam shower, inhale near a steaming kettle, or fill the sink with hot water and drape a towel over your head as you breathe.  Use a vaporizer if indoor air is dry; follow instructions carefully. Stay hydrated on the inside with water, teas, and broths; dry airways are more easily irritated, and drier secretions are harder to cough up. Avoid smoke, including second-hand smoke, and air pollutants.  Get plenty of rest to speed healing.

 Remember that even over-the-counter medicines can have side effects, may worsen some medical conditions, and could interfere with some prescription drugs.  Talk to your health care team about options tailored to your situation.

Dr. Anne Meneghetti, MD, Health, People, Play

My mother was raised on a farm, and my father grew up in an old railway car next to the railroad tracks. Access to medical care was limited, and both families made good use of home remedies to stay healthy. These traditions were passed on to my generation to soothe the illnesses of childhood and adolescence. In college and medical school, I became fascinated by modern medicine’s technical breakthroughs. After internship and residency in internal medicine, I gravitated to fellowships in Pulmonary and Critical Care medicine. Nowhere are modern breakthroughs more evident than in the Intensive Care Unit, where entire systems of the body are maintained by machines and teams of doctors and nurses. We are blessed to be alive at a time when modern medicine offers so many technical advances. Yet, for everyday health concerns, I find myself turning to the simple remedies of my childhood. The time-honored systems of natural healing from countries like China and India are experiencing a renaissance in modern times. Ancient traditional approaches seek to determine the root cause of suffering and consider illness to be a call to restore balance of body, mind, and spirit. Taking the support of natural approaches and participating fully in our own healing can be a tremendously uplifting experience. By keeping an open mind to modern and traditional approaches, as well as our own intuition, we become the best caretakers of our own selves.