People's Pharmacy: Home remedies trump over-the-counter cough medicine

By: Joe Graedon, M.S., and Teresa Graedon, Ph.D. King Features Syndicate
January 14, 2014 Updated: January 14, 2014 at 3:55 pm

In the next few weeks, chances are quite good that you will be exposed to someone's cough.

Coughing is the way the lungs respond to irritation and inflammation. It is one way that viruses are transmitted from person to person. Droplets can be propelled at up to 50 mph to a distance of 6 feet.

How can you control a cough, especially at night? It turns out that cough medicine is not that great, especially for children. A study in the Indian Journal of Pediatrics found that the most common ingredient in cough syrup, dextromethorphan, was no better than placebo (November 2013).

Dextromethorphan is the DM in many popular cough medicines. This isn't the first research to show that children don't respond well to the usual over-the-counter cough syrups. A review in the journal Lung (February 2012) concluded there is no good evidence supporting most OTC drugs (DM, diphenhydramine or guaifenesin) for kids with colds.

What else can be done? Pediatrician Ian Paul suggests honey for children older than 1. He also recommends a topically applied vapor rub.

His study comparing buckwheat honey to DM or no treatment found that parents reported better relief of their kids' nighttime coughs with honey (Archives of Pediatrics and Adolescent Medicine, December 2007). One reader reported, "My mother used to give me a teaspoon of honey with a little bit of lemon juice added, and it seemed to always calm my cough."

How about onion syrup? Many readers report that onions sliced thin and simmered in sugar were used as both a cough syrup and chest poultice. Here's one such story: "My mother prepared 'onion syrup' when I was a child in the '40s and '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 onion syrup sweetened with natural sugar processed from the local sugar cane fields."

Dr. Paul's other suggestion of applying a vapor rub also is a favorite of our readers. Here is one story: "I have tried putting Vicks VapoRub on the soles of my feet for a hacking cough. It works wonders and softens the feet as well, so you get an extra bonus."

If you're interested in more natural approaches to controlling coughs and other cold symptoms, check out our Guide to Colds, Coughs and the Flu. Anyone who would like a copy, send $3 in check or money order with a long (No. 10), stamped (66 cents), self-addressed envelope to: Graedons' People's Pharmacy, No. Q-20, P.O. Box 52027, Durham, NC 27717-2027. It also can be downloaded for $2 at


Joe Graedon is a pharmacologist. Teresa Graedon holds a doctorate in medical anthropology and is a nutrition expert.

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