Cough Syrup Doesn’t Work–But These Natural Remedies Do


I’m going to tell you something you may not want to hear or believe: Cough medicine doesn’t work for you or your children. If you’re among the more than 30 million people who run to the doctor every year because of a cough, this isn’t particularly good news.

So if cough medicines don’t work, why do people spend billions of dollars annually on over-the-counter products to fight them?

According to Norman Edelman, M.D., senior scientific advisor at the American Lung Association, “People are desperate to get some relief. They’re so convinced that they should work that they buy them anyway. If you’re a parent with a coughing child, you probably know what I mean.”

Yet as Edelman explains, “We’ve never had good evidence that cough suppressants and expectorants help with the cough.” To make matters worse, the vast majority of cough syrups on the market contain scary ingredients, including artificial colors, artificial flavors, and sweeteners including high-fructose corn syrup.

If you or your child has a cough, what should you do? Before I answer that question, let’s look at the different types of coughs.

What You Should Know About Coughs

Coughing is actually therapeutic! When you cough, your body is trying to eliminate mucus or foreign materials from your lungs and upper airway passages or you are reacting to something that is irritating your airway. It’s also important to know that a cough is a symptom, not a disease, so once you uncover the underlying cause, you can better deal with it.

Coughs Can Be Productive or Nonproductive:

  • A productive cough produces mucus or phlegm, and you don’t want to suppress this type of cough, since you want to clear the mucus or phlegm. Productive coughs are often associated with viral illnesses (e.g., the common cold), lung or upper airway infections (e.g., bronchitis, pneumonia, sinusitis), chronic lung diseases (e.g., chronic obstructive pulmonary disease), postnasal drip, gastroesophageal reflux disease, and smoking.
  • Nonproductive coughs can occur with the common cold, bronchospasm, allergies, use of ACE inhibitors (e.g., captopril, enalapril, lisinopril), asthma, and exposure to environmental irritants.

What Parents Should Know About Coughs and Kids

Although people of all ages can experience a cough, parents tend to worry when their kids develop a cough. Therefore, here are some tips for parents:

  • Never give cough or cold medication to a child who is younger than two years of age. In fact, the American Academy of Pediatrics recommends avoiding their use in children younger than six years old.
  • Giving your child cough medicine usually won’t make the cough go away any sooner than if you did nothing at all. In fact, Dr. Edelman says the medicine has little to do with a cough disappearing, which it will usually do on its own.
  • Cough medicine is associated with side effects. The over-the-counter drug dextromethorphan, for example, can cause dizziness, nausea, vomiting, confusion, constipation, and drowsiness. Guaifenesin is associated with nausea and vomiting.
  • If you do give cough medicine to a child older than two years of age, never give more than one drug with the same active ingredient, such as a decongestant or pain reliever. You risk overdosing your child if you do.
  • Don’t give your child antibiotics for a cough—they won’t work. If you do give your child antibiotics, it can lower his or her resistance to future infections.
  • Parents—the same guidelines apply to you—with age adjustments, of course.

What’s Wrong With Cough Medicines?

There hasn’t been a new effective development in the treatment of cough for more than half a century. Numerous studies have been conducted to provide proof that common over-the-counter medicines sold to treat coughs, such as dextromethorphan and guaifenesin, actually help.

According to WebMD, “It’s important to understand that these studies don’t say cough medicines don’t work. Rather, they’ve just found no proof that they do. It’s always possible that further studies could show that they help.”

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Natural Cough and Sore-Throat Remedies

Since conventional cough medicine doesn’t work, why not try natural ways to quell that cough? Here are some options.

Natural Remedies for Cough

1. Tea

This is an all-time favorite for treating a cough, although reports of its effectiveness are largely anecdotal. A study published in the Journal of Herbal Pharmacotherapy reported that a mixture of eight herbs (anise, black seed, caraway, cardamom, chamomile, fennel, licorice, and saffron) provided significant improvements in cough intensity and frequency among individuals with allergic asthma. Tea alone or with lemon and/or honey (skip the latter if treating a child younger than two years) can help soothe a productive and nonproductive cough. In addition to the herbal teas already mentioned, other options include organic orange, peppermint, lemon, green, elderberry, and thyme (children are more likely to enjoy the taste of the first three).

2. Honey

For kids age two years and older, as well as adults, honey is a winner for treating a cough. In a study of 105 young people ages two to 18, honey was compared with no treatment and honey-flavored dextromethorphan to evaluate its effect on coughing during the night and sleep quality. Parents rated honey as providing the best symptomatic relief. Boost your cough-fighting powers by mixing organic honey and/or fresh lemon juice with herbal tea. Note: Agave syrup can be used for children younger than one year—talk to your doctor.

3. Peppermint

Along with drinking peppermint tea, you can benefit from the menthol in peppermint vapors. Add four to five drops of peppermint oil to 8 ounces of hot water in a shallow bowl. Drape a towel over your head and breathe in the vapors for several minutes.

4. Fenugreek

You can use this culinary and medicinal herb both as a tea and as a gargle to soothe your throat and cough. Since fenugreek is bitter, you may want to add a little honey. Be sure to allow the tea to cool before gargling!


5. Marshmallow

No, not the little white puffs that go into hot chocolate—but the herb—Althaea officinalis. The roots and leaves of marshmallow is an ancient remedy for cough and sore throat. Marshmallow contains a substance called mucilage, which soothes the throat. You can buy marshmallow dried leaves to use as an infusion/tea, while the roots are available dried in extracts and cough syrups. Dried leaves may be used in infusions, fluid extracts, and tinctures. Marshmallow roots are available dried, peeled, or unpeeled in extracts (dry and fluid), tinctures, capsules, ointments, creams, and cough syrups.

Note: Marshmallow is not recommended for children.

6. Slippery Elm

For centuries, slippery elm (Ulmus fulva) has been valued as an oral herbal remedy for cough, sore throat, stomach problems, and diarrhea. Similar to marshmallow, slippery elm contains mucilage, which helps soothe the throat. To treat a cough, look for slippery elm tea or lozenges, both of which are made from the herb’s inner bark.

7. Andrographis Paniculata

Chances are this Chinese and Ayurvedic herb is unfamiliar to you, but numerous randomized controlled trials have shown it to be effective in treating cough. Also known as “Indian echinacea,” it is frequently used to manage the common cold and boost the immune system.

8. Probiotics

Even though these beneficial bacteria don’t reduce coughing directly, they do have a significant impact on the bacterial population in your gut and can support your immune system. If you have a cold and cough, then probiotics could be helpful.

When you want to treat a cough, there are alternatives to conventional cough medicines. You can easily whip up one of several natural remedies at home, or choose from several all-natural cough syrups on the market.


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