cut onions

If you or someone you care about starts coughing, what do you do? Many people head for the pharmacy for a “DM” (dextromethorphan) cough medicine. But DM doesn’t work all that well. How about a home-made cough remedy instead?

Onion Syrup for Coughs:

Q. I was born in 1931, the youngest of four siblings. Mother would slice onions and cook them in “sugar water” for cough syrup.

Warm cooked onions would be wrapped in flannel or old blanket pieces and applied to our chest as a “poultice” for cough. I would fake a cough so I could have that delicious syrup!

A. Most people assume that onion syrup would taste terrible, but we have heard from many readers that this old-fashioned cough remedy actually tastes delicious. Some of that might be attributed to fond childhood memories, but hardly anyone has such an association with the cod liver oil that was also administered to try to keep kids healthy.

Here are a few other readers’ responses:

“Onions seem to be good for just about everything.

“I’m from a family who came from Alabama and we never sat down to supper without having a raw onion on the table, which we assumed was as common as having bread and butter.

“Now, at age 66, I crave raw onions, especially when I’m feeling stressed or am getting sick. An onion sandwich is my idea of heaven, and I’ve eaten at some of the best restaurants in the U.S. and in Europe, too.”

“The onion cough remedy has really proven itself this winter. I had a bad cough so I laid a ‘leaf’ of onion on my tongue until it became soft, then I chewed it up and ate it. My cough was gone in 24 hours!

“My niece was going to have surgery, but she developed a cold and cough. I had shared with her (as I do my remedies with all my friends and family) my experience and the onion theory. The doctor told her they may have to postpone her surgery if the cough persists. She called me long distance to thank me. She tried it and the cough subsided, she was able to continue with her surgery

“I love onion sandwiches especially with sliced tomato – ummmm good.”

“My mother also prepared “onion syrup” when I was a child in the 40s & 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 an onion syrup sweetened with natural sugar processed from the local sugarcane fields.”

Ginger as a Cough Remedy:

Many others find that ginger is a great cough remedy and has a long tradition for relieving coughs and congestion. Some like ginger candy instead:

“I had a horrible coughing fit at my bank. The teller, an Indian woman, motioned for me and handed me a couple pieces of candied ginger from her purse. It worked immediately and now I keep some handy for anyone needing it to quell a cough.”

Sage or Thyme Tea for Cough:

A few years ago, we received a letter describing the use of sage tea to calm a cough that had resisted all other remedies:

“Scrounging in the kitchen, I found an old jar with dried sage in the bottom of it; I suspect it had been there for two or three years. I made tea from the sage, drank one cup, and the cough stopped! I was astonished!”

Naturally, using fresher herbs would be preferable. We have also had success with thyme tea made with one teaspoon of dried thyme leaves per cup of hot water, steeped for five to ten minutes. Some people like to flavor it with lemon and honey, and there is nothing wrong with that. The sweet taste of the honey might itself be soothing.

Vicks on the Soles of the Feet:

In the event that you can’t make an herbal tea, there is always Vicks VapoRub. It was traditionally applied to the throat and chest of the person suffering from congestion or a cough. You can also smear it on the soles of the feet. Remember to put on nice warm socks to keep the Vicks from staining the sheets.

You will find other home remedies for coughs in our Guide to Colds, Coughs & the Flu.

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  1. Virginia
    Charlotte, NC

    My German grandfather, at the first hint of a cold/cough, would eat a raw onion, like an apple. Next day, symptoms gone! I don’t remember him EVER suffering from the common cold!

  2. Dave

    One Recipe
    Honey & Onion Cough Syrup
    Combine a half-cup of honey and a half-cup of water. Add in one whole chopped onion and one chopped clove of garlic. Add a dash of sage, thyme or oregano and allow to steep overnight at room temperature. Strain and use the liquid as a cough syrup. Store in your refrigerator.

    “Honey also acts as a demulcent, meaning it relaxes the cough reflex and soothes the throat”. Not cooking the mixture helps preserve the full antimicrobial properties of the onions and garlic, which lose some of their potency when heated. Herbs like sage, thyme or oregano add even more antimicrobial benefits. If you can’t wait overnight for your syrup to steep, simmer the mixture for five to 10 minutes until the onions soften.

  3. Barbara G.
    SanAntonio TX

    I really believe in the onion syrup …. when my daughter was a baby, she had “colic” and was coughing all the time until we were all exhausted trying to help her. Sally asked if she could try to help…..when we approved, she sliced an onion, sprinkled sugar all over the cut edges, and waited about 30 minutes until the juice began to collect. Then a teaspoon was given to the baby….instant success! We continued to give it to her and she slept well. I gave it to my kids until they were old enough to refuse it…..and onions have been proven to be beneficial to the respiratory membranes.

    • Judy

      What does it mean to steep overnight? Do you heat the water and then put in the onion, honey, etc in it?

  4. Ron
    Orange, CA

    When I was a kid, my German mother would chop up an onion and boil it in wine and some honey. She would then strain it and boil it down some more. When that concoction cooled, it was our cough syrup.

    At the first sign of a cold or sore throat, she herself would make an onion/tomato sandwich on sourdough bread and eat it.

  5. Virginia P.
    Charlotte, NC

    My German Grandfather, at the 1st sign of a cold, would peel an onion, and eat it like an apple. Next day, not the tiniest inkle of a sniffle. He literally, never had a cold!

  6. Debra

    So what is the recipe for onion syrup?

  7. D L

    My grandmother has told me that she believes she cured my dad of going into pneumonia My applying an onion poultice to his chest. That was around the year 1950. Later I had the symptoms of pluersy and cured it by the same poultice. Also, I read on the internet recently that chewing a raw onion will kill all kinds of bacteria in the mouth.

  8. alan

    A number of years ago when I’d get home from work I’d be hungry, and being unimpaired by the thought process, i’d peel a large onion, gouge out the root, them microwave it. it was ALWAYS sweet, and if it was a noonday, 1015, vidalia or other sweet variety it came out TOO sweet. no wonder kids’d look forward to drinking “onion syrup!”

  9. Paul 43

    I would like to hear more about the onion remedies as love onions.

  10. Mary

    Around 1918 my father had diphtheria His mother dropped onion syrup down his throat to keep it open. He always believed that onion syrup saved his life.

  11. MDP

    What is the recipe for onion syrup? Do cut the onion in slices or just in half, how much sugar, water, etc. How long does it cook. How often do you take it and when. How do you store it…refrigerate or room temp.

  12. Meris

    Onions have many healing properties. A friend of mine who suffers from rheumatism in her hands, soaks a whole peeled onion in lukewarm water overnight, drinking it in the morning. She has had no pains since doing this, but must drink the remedy every morning to keep the pains away. She says the taste is not unpleasant.

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