Unless you are able to hibernate in a cave, the chances are very good that you will be exposed to someone’s cough in the next few weeks. Attend a talk, a concert or a church service and you will hear people hacking. If you are around children, they may even cough in your face.
Coughing is the way the lungs react to irritation and inflammation. And it is one way that viruses are transmitted from person to person. Droplets can be propelled at up to 50 mph to a distance of six feet.
How can you control a cough, especially at night? It turns out that cough medicine is not all that great, especially for children. A study in the Indian Journal of Pediatrics found that the most common ingredient in cough syrup, dextromethorphan, was no better than placebo (Nov., 2013).
Dextromethorphan is the DM in many popular cough medicines. This is not the first research to show that children don’t respond well to the usual over-the-counter cough syrups. A review in the journal Lung (Feb., 2012) concluded that there is no good evidence supporting most OTC drugs (DM, diphenhydramine or guaifenesin) in kids with colds.
What else can people do when they have a nasty cough keeping them awake? The author of the review in Lung, pediatrician Ian Paul, suggests honey for children older than one year. (Babies less than a year old should never get honey because it puts them at risk for botulin poisoning.) He also recommends a topically applied vapor rub.
His study comparing buckwheat honey to DM or no treatment found that parents reported better relief of their kids’ nighttime coughs with honey (Archives of Pediatrics and Adolescent Medicine, Dec., 2007). One reader reported, “My mother used to give me a teaspoon of honey with a little bit of lemon juice added and it seemed to always calm my cough.”
Another popular home remedy for coughs is onion syrup. Many readers report that onions sliced thin and simmered in sugar were used as both a cough syrup and chest poultice. Here’s one such story: “My mother prepared ‘onion syrup’ when I was a child in the 40s and 50s, but she used honey instead of sugar.
“On my first trip to India in 1986 I accompanied a local doctor to villages where she was teaching assistants to distinguish minor ailments that could be treated with local remedies from major problems that needed professional care in the nearest large village. One of the remedies used for minor coughs was onion syrup sweetened with natural sugar processed from the local sugarcane fields.”
Dr. Paul’s other suggestion of applying a vapor rub is also a favorite of our readers. Here is one story: “I have tried putting Vicks VapoRub on the soles of my feet for a hacking cough. It works wonders and softens the feet as well, so you get an extra bonus. When I have told others about this they laugh until they have tried it and then thank me for the unusual remedy.”
If you are interested in more natural approaches to controlling coughs and other cold symptoms, you may wish to send for our Guide to Colds, Coughs & the Flu.