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.