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Onion Syrup Was Tasty Cough Remedy

What do you do when a cold triggers a cough? Dextromethorphan in cough medicine tastes nasty but you might be surprised how nice onion syrup can be.
Onion Syrup Was Tasty Cough Remedy

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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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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