What’s in a Cough?

Generally speaking, coughing is perfectly normal. A cough can help to keep your throat clear from phlegm and other irritants. However, sustained coughing can also be symptomatic of a number of conditions.

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For example, a short-term bout of coughing that lasts two to three weeks — starting quickly and slowly tapering off — can point to a cold, flu, or sinus infection.

Bouts of coughing that last a longer time (three weeks or more) might signify an allergy or another underlying disorder. 

What Causes Coughing?

Coughing can signify a cold, which are caused by viral infections in the respiratory tract. Other symptoms of a cold include nasal congestion and/or a runny nose.

Allergies have similar symptoms, but are caused by allergens that irritate the immune system. When faced with an allergen such as pollen, the immune system creates chemicals called histamines to react to them.

If you have a cough that arises immediately in a certain environment or season, you may have an allergy. 

Symptoms to Watch Out For

Respiratory tract infections involve body aches and fever, whereas allergies do not. You should see a doctor if you develop a fever or experience chills, as these symptoms can be a sign of a serious lung infection like bronchitis. You should also seek medical attention if your cough is violent or you produce thick, bad-smelling, off-colored phlegm.

You can treat coughs due to colds, allergies, and sinus infections with a number of over-the-counter medicines. However, for those who prefer to avoid chemicals, we’ve listed a few home remedies that can help.

1. Honey

honey

Honey is a time-honored remedy for a sore throat. According to a 2007 study, it can also relieve coughs more effectively than over-the-counter medicines that contain dextromethorphan (DM), a cough suppressant.

You can create your own remedy at home by mixing honey with herbal tea, or warm water and lemon. The honey does the soothing, while lemon juice can help with congestion.

2. Probiotics

Probiotics

Probiotics are microorganisms that can provide a host of health benefits. While they don’t relieve a cough directly, they help to balance your gastrointestinal flora (the bacteria that live in your intestines). This can support immune system function throughout the body. Some evidence also suggests that Lactobacillus, a bacterium in dairy, can reduce the likelihood of a cold or flu, and sensitivity to certain allergens like pollen.

Fortified milk is a great source of Lactobacillus.You should be cautious, however, as dairy may make phlegm thicker.

3. Bromelain

Bromelain

You don’t usually think of pineapple as a cough remedy, but that’s probably because you’ve never heard of Bromelain. According to a review of research on the medicinal value of pineapples, there is evidence to suggest that Bromelain — an enzyme found in the tropical fruit — can help suppress coughs as well as loosen the mucus in your throat.

There are also claims that it can help relieve sinusitis and allergy-based sinus issues, which can contribute to coughs and mucus. However, there is insufficient evidence to support this, according to the National Institutes of Health (NIH). It’s also sometimes used to treat inflammation and swelling.  

Bromelain supplements should not be taken by children, or adults who take blood thinners. Also, be careful using this if you are also on antibiotics such as amoxicillin as it can increase the absorption of the antibiotic. Always speak to your doctor before taking new or unfamiliar supplements.

4. Peppermint

Peppermint

Peppermint leaves and the oil of eucalyptus are both well known for their healing properties. Menthol in peppermint soothes the throat and acts as a decongestant, helping to break down mucus. You can benefit by drinking peppermint tea, or by inhaling peppermint vapors from a steam bath. To make a steam bath, drop three to four drops of peppermint oil mixed for every 150 milliliters (mL) of hot water. Drape a towel over your head, and take deep breaths directly above the water.

With eucalyptus, you can create an ointment rub made of coconut oil, beeswax, and eucalyptus oil. 

5. Marshmallow

Marshmallow

Marshmallow is made from Althaea officinalis, a perennial that flowers in summer. The leaves and roots of the herb have been used since ancient times to treat sore throats and suppress coughs. There are no well-controlled studies to support these claims, but the herb is generally considered safe.

The marshmallow herb contains mucilage, which coats the throat and soothes irritation.

Today, you can get marshmallow root in tea or as in capsule form, although it is not recommended for children.

6. Thyme

Thyme is used by some for respiratory illnesses.One study suggests that the essence extracted from thyme leaves mixed with ivecan help relieve coughing as well as short-term bronchitis. The leaves contain compounds called flavonoids that relax the throat muscles involved in coughing, and also lessen inflammation.

You can make thyme tea at home using two teaspoons of crushed thyme leaves and one cup of boiling water. Cover the cup, steep for 10 minutes, and strain.

How to Prevent Coughing

As well as learning how to treat a cough, you might also want to learn how to prevent them in the first place. To prevent against flu, make sure you get your annual flu shot, and wash your hands as often as possible.

With allergies, you can reduce flare-ups by identifying the allergens that affect you and avoiding exposure to them. Common allergens include trees, pollen, dust mites, animal fur, mold, and insects. Allergy shots are helpful as well and can reduce your sensitivity to allergens. Talk to your doctor about what plan is right for you.