Coughing just sucks. Whether it’s a repetitive, dry barking cough or a deep, wet hacking, coughs are one of the worst symptoms of being sick. So, should you use natural remedies?
Unfortunately, antibiotics won’t treat coughs themselves, but there’s still plenty you can do to make yourself cough less, and make your coughing less painful. “Many coughs simply take time to go away,” says Dr Cindy Uypitching, a family medicine physician. “Most doctors will suggest you try natural remedies for your cough first, and there are several that can help make you more comfortable when you’re sick.”
But before you can deal with your cough, it’s important to understand what’s causing it and how serious it is:
What actually causes coughing?
Coughing can be caused by a variety of factors, but the most common culprits are bacterial and viral illnesses (like pneumonia, influenza, or a cold), allergies, a runny nose, heartburn and asthma, Dr. Uypitching says. Often coughing is worse at night, usually due to the position you’re in, as lying down can lead to more congestion and worsen heartburn. Sleeping with your head raised up by pillows can help, as can trying one of the natural remedies ahead right before bed.
What’s the difference between a dry cough and wet cough?
A dry cough is pretty much exactly what it sounds like, and might be in reaction to a dry, itchy, scratchy throat or other irritation. A wet cough, meaning one that brings up mucus or other fluids, is typically caused by a virus like the cold or flu. Viruses can last up to a month—much longer than many people think, Dr. Uypitching says.
What should I do if my cough just isn’t going away?
If your cough doesn’t go away after three to four weeks, becomes chronic, or recurs under certain circumstances, then it’s time to go in and get it checked out, Dr. Uypitching says. It may have progressed to a more serious infection or it may indicate you have reflux, allergies, or asthma, all of which can and should be treated by a doctor. Contact your doctor right away if you have other symptoms that are worsening, like a fever, chest pain, or shortness of breath, she adds.
Let’s get into the at-home solutions you’re dying for. But before your use any natural cough remedies that involve herbs, check with your doctor about how they may interact with any medications you’re on, Dr. Uypitching says. And remember, natural remedies are meant to supplement any meds your doctor has given you and shouldn’t be used in place of any traditional treatment your doctor recommends when you’re sick.
Natural remedies 101
Hopefully, these 12 natural cough remedies make your cough less of a nuisance and make it easier for your to rest up and feel better.
1) Orange juice
The key to managing any cough is to make sure you are drinking lots of fluids, says Dr May Loo, an integrative medicine specialist. “Lungs need to be well hydrated in order to minimise formation of mucus,” she explains. Not only is orange juice a tasty way to hydrate but it contains a lot of vitamin C. High doses of vitamin C were found to help reduce symptoms, including coughing, in patients with pneumonia in a meta-analysis published in Nutrients.
“Thyme functions as both a culinary herb and a medicine,” says Dr Michael S. Fenster, interventional cardiologist, author and professional chef. The leaves and flowers contain thymol and carvacrol, which act as antispasmodics, expectorants, and contain antibacterial and antiviral compounds—all of which can help improve coughs, he explains. Add the herb to your meals or enjoy it in a soothing tea.
This herb, more commonly known as frankincense, has been used for centuries to treat coughs, particularly those that come from inflammation of the lungs or other areas, Dr. Fenster says. Its potent anti-inflammatory compounds can help both in soothing a cough and fighting the oral pathogens that can cause them, he explains. Dissolving boswellia in hot water and inhaling the steam helped reduce coughing from asthma and bronchitis, according to a study published in the Journal of Traditional and Complementary Medicine.
“Eating pungent spices, including ginger, cinnamon and anise, can help strengthen your respiratory system,” Dr. Loo says. These spices can be brewed into a delicious herbal tea and the warm water and steam have the added benefit of helping to open up your lungs, she says. Purified ginger put in a nebuliser helped relax people’s airways and reduce coughing, particularly “dry” coughs related to asthma, according to a study published in the American Journal of Respiratory Cell and Molecular Biology.
5) Chilli peppers
Spicy foods are a natural way to strengthen your respiratory system, Dr. Loo says. But some spicy foods, particularly ones containing capsaicin, like chilli peppers, can significantly reduce the congestion and coughing that come from constant post-nasal drip from allergies or rhinitis, according to a study published in The Annals of Asthma, Allergy, and Immunology. Patients who used a nasal spray containing capsaicin saw improvement in under one minute that lasted for up to an hour, they found.
6) Marshmallow root
Marshmallow root has been used for centuries to help deal with cold symptoms, including coughs, and it can actually help, according to a meta-analysis published in International Journal of Pharmaceutical Science in Invention. The marshmallow herb contains a compound called mucilage, which coats the throat and soothes irritation. The researchers recommend taking it in capsule form or drinking marshmallow root tea.
7) Almond milk
The idea that eating or drinking dairy products causes increased mucus and coughing is a myth, nor does it worsen a cough from an existing cold, according to research published in The American Review of Respiratory Disease. But many people associate dairy with congestion because milk has a similar texture and viscosity to mucus which can make it feel like it’s sticking in your throat, according to the Australasian Society of Clinical Immunology and Allergy. If you have a dry cough and are craving something creamy to coat your throat and ease the scratchiness, but want a thinner texture, almond or coconut milk is a good replacement, Dr. Loo says.
One of Dr. Uypitching’s favourite home cough remedies is a big spoonful of honey. Not only is it tasty but it’s been shown to be just as effective in suppressing coughs, particularly those caused by upper respiratory tract infections, as some over-the-counter cough medicines. Patients given a tablespoon of honey before bedtime got as much, or more, relief than they did when given dextromethorphan, a common ingredient in cough medicines, according to a study published in The Archives of Pediatric and Adolescent Medicine.
9) Salt water gargle
Coughing isn’t just from issues in your lungs. In fact, sore, irritated, and inflamed throats are a very common cause of coughs, Dr. Uypitching says. A good way to help calm your throat, and your cough, is to make a warm solution of water and salt and gargle it for 30 seconds, she says.
10) Chicken soup
Chicken soup is a time-honoured cold remedy in many cultures and for good reason, Dr. Uypitching says. Not only does it combine several other proven cough remedies—warm water, steam, herbs, salt, fluids—but it may have cough-fighting properties of its own. Chicken soup significantly lowered signs of infection from colds and flus, in a study published in Chest.
11) Neti pot
A Neti pot is a small kettle used to flush out the sinuses. You fill it with a warm salt water solution and then pour it gently into one nostril, allowing it to travel through your sinus cavities and out your other nostril. While it may sound weird, it’s actually an effective remedy for coughs caused by sinusitis or sinus congestion, Dr. Uypitching says. Just make sure you’re using purified water so you don’t introduce other germs into your sinuses.
12) Steam shower
The research on steam, by itself, as a cough remedy is surprisingly mixed, with some studies showing that it helps while others show no benefit. But regardless of whether or not it produces statistically significant results, many coughing patients find a hot shower very comforting and soothing and it certainly won’t hurt to try, Dr. Uypitching says. One way to make steam more effective is to combine it with other things, like herbs or menthol, she says.
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