Every winter, we hear from people who’d like to share their favorite family remedies for coughs, colds and flu. We haven’t conducted research on any of these, but one that keeps cropping up year after year is an onion cough remedy. Here are a few stories from our readers.
Onion Cough Remedy from Germany:
Q. Now that it is cold season, you might be interested in my favorite remedy. When I was a kid, my German mother would chop up an onion and boil it in wine and honey. She would then strain the liquid and boil it down some more. When that concoction cooled, it was our cough syrup.
As for herself, at the first sign of a cold or sore throat, she would make an onion/tomato sandwich on sourdough bread and eat it.
A. Thank you for this reminiscence. We have heard from a number of readers who were given onion syrup for coughs when they were kids. There are multiple versions, some using honey, while others sweeten the onion with sugar. Sadly, we have found no clinical trials on onion syrup.
Onion and Sugar:
Other readers have offered stories like yours, though.
Here is one:
“My grandmother (who would have been 99 at the end of this month) used to make this for us when we were kids. I remember onion and sugar but thought there was something else in it. Nope, that’s it! I just made it for my 5-year-old son who got a bad cough at school (not COVID). It still works like a charm. I switched it up a bit and used raw local honey as the sweetener.”
That is probably smart. A review of six randomized controlled trials found that honey relieved children’s coughs better than placebo (Cochrane Database of Systematic Reviews, April 10, 2018). Important warning: Don’t give raw honey to babies under a year old because of the risk of botulinum toxin.
Onion Syrup for Coughs:
Q. When we were children, our mother made us a cough syrup by slicing an onion and covering the slices with sugar. The sugar sucks the juice out of the onion and makes a clear syrup.
I had a raw cough and my lungs hurt from congestion. A tablespoon of the syrup stopped the coughing. I used more as needed, and today my cough and lungs are much better.
Onions are a super-food. The taste of this syrup is like caramelized onions, almost pleasant.
A. This seems to be quite a traditional recipe. A friend told us that her Hungarian grandmother made this syrup for her several decades ago.
Much longer ago, in the mid-18th century, American settlers used the juice of roasted onion to treat children with croupy cough. One advantage of roasted onion juice is that, like many pioneer home remedies, onions were almost always available.
World-Wide Popularity of Onion Cough Remedy:
A different member of the Allium family, garlic, also features in some cold remedies. One reader wrote:
Q. You may be interested in my family’s cold remedy. My mom always used to sauté chopped garlic in olive oil, spoon it up and put a little salt on it. Then she would put it in a cool spoon and give it to my sisters and me when we had just the beginning of the sniffles. They would go away fast. I’m originally from Peru.
A. We appreciate family remedies that have been passed down for generations. Many cultures value garlic and onions for their healing properties.
Readers tell us that onion syrup has been used against coughs for decades. The onion was sliced thinly and cooked slowly with some sweetening and a little liquid.
Here is another reader’s story:
“My mother prepared onion syrup when I was a child in the 1940s & 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 between minor ailments that could be treated with local remedies and 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.”
We like the idea that an onion relative, garlic, would also be helpful against colds. This aromatic bulb has been used against colds, flu, fever and a host of other complaints.
More Testimonials on Onion Cough Remedy:
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.”
Another reader offered this testimonial a few years ago:
“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.”
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. Ginger tea is a popular way to ward off a cold or cough.
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; it may have been there for two or three years. I made tea from the sage, drank one cup, and the cough stopped! Astonishing!”
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.
Onion and honey (sometimes used instead of sugar to make onion syrup) are both active against some microbes, including Staphylococcus, Streptococcus, Klebsiella, Pseudomonas and Candida (West Indian Medical Journal, Sept., 2003). These pathogens often live in the throat or pharynx and are associated with sore throats or infections that cause cough.
You might try adding sage or thyme to your sliced onion when you make the syrup. Ingredients in thyme such as thymol have been shown to be helpful in calming coughs. Joe’s mother used to make special chicken soup for colds in which she put garlic and thyme as well as onion. If you would like to learn more about home remedies for a cough, you may be interested in our Guide to Colds, Coughs and the Flu.