Coughs play a role in clearing irritants and infections from the body, but persistent coughing can be annoying. The best treatment for a cough will depend on its underlying cause.

Allergies, infections, and acid reflux make up just a few underlying causes of a cough.

This article reviews natural remedies that may help to treat a cough.

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Some natural remedies may help to relieve a cough.

However, it is important to remember that the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) does not monitor herbs and supplements, so people who use them may be at risk of using low-quality products and impurities.

People who want to use natural remedies to treat their cough should research sources and brands. They should also be aware that some herbs and supplements can interfere with medications, which may result in unwanted side effects.

A person should always consult a doctor before taking supplements.

A person should also see a doctor if:

People use a range of natural remedies to try to treat a persistent cough.

While they may help some people, it is important to note that some of the following remedies have limited evidence to support their use.

This means a person may or may not find that the remedies work for them.

1. Honey

According to research, honey may relieve a cough.

In a 2021 review of studies, researchers looked at the effect of using honey to treat coughs in upper respiratory infections.

The researchers found that honey was superior to usual care, both in suppressing the cough and in helping to prevent the need for antibiotics.

In a 2021 study, researchers compared honey to dextromethorphan, a common cough suppressant.

The researchers found that both honey and dextromethorphan worked to suppress coughs. They noted that honey scored slightly higher in one trial and on par with dextromethorphan in another trial.

A person can use this remedy by swallowing a spoonful of honey or adding it to a hot drink, such as an herbal tea.

2. Ginger

Ginger may ease a dry or asthmatic cough, as it has anti-inflammatory properties. It may also relieve nausea and pain.

Only a few older studies have looked at ginger’s effect on coughs. A study from 2015 examined 10 different natural products used in traditional Asian medicines, including ginger.

The researchers found that ginger, along with other remedies, including honey, has played a long-lasting role in traditional medicines.

While a long history of use can be an important implication, the researchers noted that their study may provide future researchers with a place to start when examining natural solutions to coughs.

People often add ginger to dishes or drink it in tea. They should be aware that, in some cases, ginger tea can cause stomach upset or heartburn.

3. Hot fluids

While current research is lacking, an older study from 2008 showed that drinking liquids at room temperature may alleviate a cough, runny nose, and sneezing.

However, people with additional symptoms of a cold or flu may benefit from warming up their beverages. The same study reports that hot beverages alleviate even more symptoms, including a sore throat, chills, and fatigue.

The symptom relief was immediate and remained for a continued period after finishing the hot beverage.

Hot beverages that may be comforting include:

  • clear broths
  • herbal teas
  • decaffeinated black tea
  • warm water
  • warm fruit juices

4. Steam

A wet cough, which is one that produces mucus or phlegm, may improve with steam.

To try this method, a person should take a hot shower or bath and allow the bathroom to fill with steam. They should stay in this steam for a few minutes until symptoms subside. They can drink a glass of water afterward to cool down and prevent dehydration.

Alternatively, people can make a steam bowl. To do this, a person should:

  1. Fill a large bowl with hot water.
  2. Add herbs or essential oils, such as eucalyptus or rosemary. These may help relieve congestion.
  3. Lean over the bowl and place a towel over the head. This traps the steam so the person can breathe it in.
  4. Keep breathing in the steam for about 10–15 minutes.

A person may find steaming helpful when done one to two times per day.

While many believe steam will help with cough and other symptoms, not all evidence agrees. For example, a 2017 study looking at the use of steam for common cold symptoms found it did not noticeably improve a person’s symptoms.

5. Marshmallow root

Marshmallow root is an herb that has a long history of use as a treatment for coughs and sore throats.

The herb can ease irritation resulting from coughing because of its high mucilage content. Mucilage is a thick, gluey substance that coats the throat.

One older, small study found that an herbal cough syrup containing marshmallow root, along with thyme and ivy, effectively relieved coughs resulting from common colds and respiratory tract infections.

After 12 days of taking the syrup, 90% of the participants rated its effectiveness as good or very good.

In a 2020 study, researchers also noted the coating effect of marshmallow root extract.

They found that the root extract has antioxidative and anti-inflammatory properties and provided similar relief to diclofenac, a nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory medication. The study used in vitro testing.

Marshmallow root is also available as a dried herb or a bagged tea. A person should add hot water to either and then drink it immediately or allow it to cool first. The longer the marshmallow root steeps in the water, the more mucilage will be in the drink.

Side effects can include stomach upset, but it may be possible to counter this by drinking extra fluids.

Marshmallow root is available to purchase in health stores or online.

6. Saltwater gargle

People have used saltwater gargles for a long time to help alleviate sore throat and symptoms associated with the common cold. It may help loosen mucus and alleviate some pain.

However, it likely will not help reduce viral load.

In a 2021 study, researchers compared different antiseptic mouthwashes to help prevent the spread of COVID-19. They found that several commercial brands helped with reducing viral load, but a lab-made saltwater solution did not effectively kill the virus.

To make a saltwater gargle, a person can:

  1. Stir 1/2 teaspoon of salt into a cup of warm water until it dissolves.
  2. Allow the solution to cool slightly before using it to gargle.
  3. Let the mixture sit at the back of the throat for a few moments before spitting it out.
  4. Do this several times each day until the cough improves.

Young children and people with high blood pressure should avoid using saltwater gargles.

7. Bromelain

Bromelain is an enzyme that comes from pineapples. It is most plentiful in the core of the fruit.

It has anti-inflammatory properties and may also have mucolytic properties, which means that it can break down mucus and remove it from the body.

Some people drink pineapple juice daily to reduce mucus in the throat and suppress coughing. However, there may not be enough bromelain in the juice to relieve symptoms.

Bromelain supplements are available and may be more effective at relieving coughs. However, it is best for a person to speak with a doctor before trying any new supplements.

Bromelain is a potential allergen, and the substance may also cause side effects and interact with medications. People who take blood thinners or specific antibiotics should not take bromelain.

8. Thyme

Thyme has both culinary and medicinal uses and is a commonly used remedy for a cough, sore throat, bronchitis, and digestive issues.

In a 2015 meta-analysis of several studies, researchers noted that strong evidence suggests that using thyme preparations helped to alleviate people’s cough symptoms.

However, they noted additional studies are needed to demonstrate its overall effectiveness.

A more recent study in 2021 showed that people using a combination of thyme and ivy drops showed improvement in bronchitis symptoms, cough, and overall quality of life.

They also noted that people experienced few side effects using the drops.

To treat coughs using thyme, a person can look for a cough syrup that contains this herb.

9. Dietary changes for acid reflux

Acid reflux is a common cause of a cough. Avoiding foods that can trigger acid reflux is one of the best ways to manage this condition and reduce the cough that accompanies it.

Every individual may have different reflux triggers that they need to avoid. People who are unsure of what causes their reflux can begin by eliminating the most common triggers from their diet and monitoring their symptoms.

The foods and beverages that most commonly trigger acid reflux include:

10. Slippery elm

Native Americans traditionally used slippery elm bark to treat coughing and digestive issues.

Slippery elm is similar to marshmallow root as it contains a high level of mucilage, which helps to soothe a sore throat and cough.

A person can make slippery elm tea by adding 1 teaspoon of the dried herb to a cup of hot water and allowing it to steep for at least 10 minutes before drinking.

It is important to note that slippery elm may interfere with the absorption of medications, so a person should talk with a doctor before making a tea or using another supplement.

Slippery elm is available in powder and capsule form in health stores and online.

11. N-acetylcysteine (NAC)

NAC is a supplement that comes from the amino acid L-cysteine. Taking a daily dose may lessen the frequency and severity of a wet cough by reducing mucus in the airways.

A meta-analysis of 13 studies suggests that NAC can significantly and consistently reduce symptoms in people with chronic bronchitis.

Chronic bronchitis is a prolonged inflammation of the airways that causes mucus buildup, a cough, and other symptoms.

The researchers suggest a daily dose of 600 milligrams (mg) of NAC for people without airway obstruction, and up to 1,200 mg where there is an obstruction.

NAC can have severe side effects, including hives, swelling, fever, and difficulty breathing. Anyone considering this approach should speak with a doctor first.

12. Probiotics

Probiotics do not directly relieve a cough, but they may boost the immune system by balancing the bacteria in the gut.

A healthy immune system can help to fight off infections that may be causing the cough.

One type of probiotic, a bacteria called Lactobacillus, provides a modest benefit in preventing the common cold, according to an older study published in 2013.

Another meta-analysis published in 2016 found that taking probiotics helped to reduce the number of times children came down with respiratory tract infections, which could indirectly reduce coughing.

Supplements containing Lactobacillus and other probiotics are available at health stores and drug stores.

Some foods are also naturally rich in probiotics, including:

However, the number and diversity of probiotic units in foods can vary greatly. It may be best to take probiotic supplements in addition to eating probiotic-rich foods.

It is not always possible to avoid getting a cold or other respiratory tract infections that can lead to a cough, but the following tips can reduce the risk:

  • Avoiding contact with people who are sick: A person should maintain a safe distance from people who have a head cold, flu, or a cough.
  • Washing hands regularly: A person should use soap and warm water to remove bacteria and viruses from the skin. Parents and caregivers can teach children how to wash their hands properly. A person can use an alcohol-based hand sanitizer outside the home when necessary.
  • Using disinfectant: When a family member is ill, a person should clean the kitchen and bathroom regularly with a disinfectant and wash bedding, towels, and soft toys on a hot wash.
  • Staying hydrated: A person should make sure to drink enough water, herbal teas, and other beverages to help prevent dehydration.
  • Reducing stress: Stress affects the immune system and increases the risk of getting sick. To alleviate stress, a person can exercise regularly, meditate, do deep breathing, and try progressive muscle relaxation techniques.
  • Getting enough sleep: A person should aim to sleep for 7–9 hours each night as part of their regular self-care routine.
  • Taking immune-boosting supplements: A person may consider taking zinc, vitamin C, and probiotics during cold and flu season to boost their immune system. Prior to starting new supplements, a person should talk with a doctor.

Allergy symptoms can sometimes mimic those of a cold. A person can reduce allergy flare-ups by avoiding triggers such as pollen, dust mites, animal dander, and mold. Also, a person should see a doctor about getting allergy shots or medications.

When dealing with a cold or other respiratory tract infection, a person may want more immediate relief. While some of the above remedies, such as honey or steam, may help more immediately, others do not work as quickly.

Some additional steps a person may find helpful for reducing their cough include:

  • drinking warm fluids such as broth or teas
  • avoiding dairy products
  • avoiding alcohol
  • breathing in moist air from shower steam or a humidifier

A person may also find some relief with over-the-counter medications, such as those containing dextromethorphan or cough drops. These can help suppress a cough.

A person should see a doctor if the following symptoms accompany a cough:

  • foul-smelling green or yellow phlegm
  • chills
  • dehydration
  • fever over 102°F
  • fever that lasts for more than 3 days
  • weakness

People should call 911 or go to the nearest emergency department if a cough brings up blood or causes breathing difficulties.

Several natural remedies may help provide some relief to a person’s cough directly or indirectly.

Though many have at least some scientific backing, they may not work for everyone. Also, natural remedies do not guarantee safety for everyone.

People taking medications or living with certain health conditions should talk with a doctor before trying any new supplements or home remedies.

Read this article in Spanish.