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.

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  1. genie d

    This week’s program discussed using thyme and honey for coughs…how much thyme? How do you prepare it? can it be saved in a bottle?
    Also how much sage to salt for a sore throat?
    People’s Pharmacy response: The exact recipes (scores of them!) are in Dr. Low Dog’s book. When we make thyme tea at home for a cough, I use a teaspoon of dried thyme to 12 ounces of water and steep 5 minutes. Then I add honey and lemon to taste. That is usually drunk when it is served, but it is possible to make a thyme cough syrup and save it in a jar in the fridge.

  2. Sammie

    Onion cough syrup
    Place 3 large chopped onions in a double-boiler along with 1/4 cup of (use 100% honey), honey. Cook slowly for a couple of hours, strain off the liquid and dispose of onions. The liquid can be used as often as needed.

  3. Tom H.

    Could someone please post a recipe for onion syrup? How much sliced onion, sugar, and water?

  4. Neil K.

    About 40 years ago, In a Euell Gibbons book “Stalking the Heathful Herbs” he wrote of an old Native American remedy for coughs – the inner bark of the slippery elm. There is a product – Thayer’s Slippery Elm Throat Lozenges that takes the challenge of locating a slippery elm and then figuring out what to do with it when you find it. I’ve found that this stops dry, hacking coughs in a few minutes. They really have no flavor, good or bad, and are available at many health food stores or on line.

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