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How to Calm a Cough Naturally

Thymol in Vicks VapoRub or thyme tea can help calm a cough naturally. Here are instructions on how to make your own cough syrup at home.
How to Calm a Cough Naturally
Cough, woman with glasses coughing

Do you know how to calm a cough naturally? At this time of year, lots of people are coughing. If you go to a movie or a concert, chances are good that the people around you will be hacking away. Ditto for work or religious services.

Why Do We Cough?

A cough is the body’s response to irritation or infection. It’s an automatic attempt to expel pathogens, allergens or pollutants. Your lungs make mucus in response to upper respiratory tract infections. A so-called productive cough moves this gunk up and out of the airways.

However, not uncommonly the inflammation may linger long after the infection is gone. As a result, the cough may go on for weeks or even months.

When a Cough Becomes a Problem:

When a cough lingers and interferes with sleep or leads to vomiting, it is no longer adaptive. Sometimes it can lead to unplanned urine release or even fainting.

What Causes Persistent Coughing?

The leading cause of chronic coughing is smoking. But people who don’t smoke can also have a cough persist much longer than expected. According to the Harvard Health Letter, the primary causes of a nagging cough are postnasal drip, asthma, acid reflux, chronic bronchitis and an ACE inhibitor blood pressure medicine causing cough as a side effect. Postnasal drip may begin with a cold, the flu or an infection like respiratory syncytial virus and continue on much longer, resulting in a post-infectious cough.

When to See a Doctor about That Cough:

Someone who has a fever or is short of breath along with the cough should see a doctor. Night sweats, weight loss and lack of appetite that accompany a cough are also red flags, as are wheezing or coughing up blood. These signal a serious medical problem.

How to Treat a Cough:

What can you do to calm a normal cough that is simply dragging on? A cough due to postnasal drip may respond to an antihistamine or decongestant. However, men with prostate enlargement should avoid such drugs as they could make urination difficult. A nasal spray containing a steroid might be helpful if decongestants are not an option.

If the chronic cough is due to asthma or to acid reflux, the doctor will be able to prescribe medicines to ease either of those underlying conditions.

Some people try an over-the-counter cough medicines containing dextromethorphan (DM). Although these medications have been approved by the FDA, the scientific evidence supporting DM against cough is fairly weak (Journal of Pharmacy and Pharmacology, Sep. 2000).  Researchers have long bemoaned the lack of evidence for effective treatments to help control post-infectious cough (British Journal of General Practice, Oct. 2018).

Can You Calm a Cough Naturally?

What other cough remedies might be helpful? Some people find that applying Vicks VapoRub or Mentholatum to the soles of the feet at bedtime can calm a nighttime cough. Menthol, eucalyptol and thymol found in Vicks have cough-suppressing activity. But they won’t necessarily be useful against a chronic cough.

Another inexpensive and old-fashioned remedy would be a home-made cough syrup. Some people find that onions simmered slowly in sugar syrup make a helpful and tasty cough remedy. Others are enthusiastic about thyme tea or cough syrup.

Tieraona Low Dog, MD, has offered these instructions: Pour one cup near-boiling water over two tablespoons of dried thyme and steep for ten minutes. Strain the concoction and add one teaspoon of lemon juice and one-half cup of organic honey. It may be saved in the refrigerator for up to a week. The dose for adults and children over 18 months is one tablespoon. You’ll find this recipe along with many others in our book, Quick & Handy Home Remedies. 

Thyme Cough Syrup Recipe:

Another reader found Dr. Low Dog’s recipe in a different book. Here’s the report:

Q. I recently read your book, Spice Up Your Health: How Everyday Kitchen Herbs & Spices Can Lengthen & Strengthen Your Life. I used it to make thyme cough syrup for my husband when he had bronchitis. We were both extremely pleased with the results.

Thyme to Calm a Cough Naturally:

A. Thyme is terrific. It has been appreciated since Roman times. In the 17th century, it was recognized as a helpful remedy for coughs. You might discount that as hearsay from long ago, but science has now validated this folklore.

One of the components of the thyme plant, thymol, helps to ease cough (Wagner et al, Forschenden Komplementarmedizin, Dec. 2015).  Additionally, this herb also appears to have antibacterial and anticancer activity. Thyme is an essential part of the Mediterranean diet and may help with digestion and cholesterol control.

Want More Information?

Anyone who would like to learn more about thyme and dozens of other herbs and spices, from anise, chamomile and cinnamon to peppermint (source of menthol), rosemary and sage, may find our book, Spice Up Your Health, helpful.

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About the Author
Terry Graedon, PhD, is a medical anthropologist and co-host of The People’s Pharmacy radio show, co-author of The People’s Pharmacy syndicated newspaper columns and numerous books, and co-founder of The People’s Pharmacy website. Terry taught in the Duke University School of Nursing and was an adjunct assistant professor in the Department of Anthropology. She is a Fellow of the Society of Applied Anthropology. Terry is one of the country's leading authorities on the science behind folk remedies. .
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