We all cough; removing debris from our airways is a normal reflexive action. Sometimes, we cough because we swallowed something that went down the wrong way, or we consciously do it to grab someone’s attention. Still, a cough could signify a mild cold or other upper respiratory illness. A cough that lasts longer than a few days or requires over-the-counter (OTC) cough suppressants for more than 5–7 days could be serious and represent lung disease (e.g., pneumonia, bronchitis), heart disease, or other serious conditions. When first noticing a cough, most people don’t even need to reach for OTC medications and can manage a typical cough with these 11 at-home remedies.
Why we cough
Coughing is a reflex action. It provides a safety mechanism and a means to clear our airways of debris, mucus, and other things that don’t belong. It is a protective measure to help lessen our chances of illness or in response to infection or damage to the airways, allowing us to clear particles in the air and preventing them from getting into the airways. It can occur with upper respiratory (bacterial, viral, or other germs), lower airway diseases (asthma, pneumonia, bronchitis), and non-respiratory causes, including the heart and gastrointestinal (GI) tract.
Reasons we cough
We cough for a variety of reasons, including:
- Swallowing improperly (e.g., choking).
- Colds and other viral infections (especially common in winter) like the flu, COVID-19, or RSV. This may start dry, then become wet and productive, but usually becomes dry again as the body fights infection. If it remains wet and doesn't clear, seek medical advice.
- Underlying allergies (environmental or food allergies).
- Bronchitis (inflammation in the large airways) — infectious and non-infectious causes.
- Pneumonia (viral, bacterial, parasitic, or fungal; may result from an upper respiratory tract infection that gets into your lungs or for other reasons). This is potentially life-threatening.
- Asthma (a disease of the lower airways, the alveoli).
- Heart disease — enlarged hearts or CHF (congestive heart failure), which is also potentially life-threatening.
- Chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), another condition of the lower airways, usually as a result of long-term smoking.
- Underlying GI conditions. Though unrelated to our airway, a cough can also occur with GERD (gastroesophageal reflux disease) or other intestinal conditions that affect our ability for food to move out of the stomach (motility disorders).
- Certain weather conditions contribute to dry mouth or cause constriction (narrowing) of the airways, e.g., dry air or a result of very cold temperatures.
- Medication side-effects e.g., certain medications used to treat the heart or for blood pressure modification.
Though coughing is usually an unconscious reflex, sometimes we cough to get attention before talking or when people aren’t listening.
- If the cough is present for less than 2 weeks then it's acute
- If the cough is present for more than 2-3 months, (depending on the resource) then it's chronic
Coughs may worsen with exercise or exposure to cold temperatures (smaller airways constrict to preserve heat) or flare up at night or at certain times of the year. How serious a cough is, how long it lasts, and what treatment is necessary vary depending on the underlying cause.
How do we treat a cough?
If you don’t have a fever, have strength and energy, and aren’t feeling awful when you first notice a dry, unproductive cough, you can always try treating it at home first. However, seek medical attention if the cough worsens and you develop a fever, weakness, or other abnormalities. Do not wait, as serious conditions could contribute, and waiting could make a huge difference.
If a cough is due to an underlying illness, we do not want to suppress it 24/7. A cough can be protective, allowing us to rid our bodies of debris, toxins, and germs. Thus, if we take a cough suppressant all day long, we may prevent our body from being able to fight illness. Therefore, a cough suppressant may increase the risk of pneumonia or worsening illness.
However, we all need to be able to sleep to strengthen our immune systems, heal from infection, and minimize our stress. Whether one reaches for OTC options or at-home remedies is up to each individual, but consider trying these tips first before reaching for medications with potential side effects.
11 at-home cough remedies
Here are listed eleven home remedies that help with treating cough and relieving the symptoms.
Honey may help soothe the throat and may help treat a cough. Reputable research exists on using medical-grade honey for treating wounds because of its antibacterial properties and potential benefits in reducing inflammation. It is commonly added to OTC cough medications and lozenges. It can be added to teas or other drinks for mild coughs. Research is ongoing.
2. Steam therapy
Humidified air can be beneficial in loosening up mucus and phlegm deep in the airways. Use steam therapy: run your bath/shower and get the air in the bathroom all steamy. Let it run and sit in the area for 15 minutes to loosen debris. This may increase your coughing short-term but may help dislodge any stuff in the airways and allow you to clear the passages, lessening the cough later.
3. Use a humidifier
Free-standing humidifiers or humidified heating systems can be very beneficial for coughs and colds and, in general, to lessen dry air in the wintertime. A humidifier is a device that disperses minute amounts of water (humidity) into the atmosphere. Those with upper respiratory infections and coughs may find breathing easier with this additional moisture. Use caution with free-standing humidifiers, and make sure the air stays at a healthy level. Too much humidity in the air can increase the risk of mold or bacterial development, so ensure a healthy balance.
4. Drink warm beverages like tea
Warm beverages can aid in soothing the throat and may help resolve a dry cough. Though research is limited, a few studies suggest that a hot drink, such as tea, compared to drinks at room temperature, is more effective at soothing coughing.
5. Air purifiers
Air purifiers help decrease allergens, including dust, mold, and germs, such as viruses and bacteria. However, do your research, as not all are created equal, and some may not protect against these possible cough triggers.
Air purifiers, when combined with appropriately humidified air and controlled temperatures in a home, can help lessen one’s chance of respiratory illness and allergens inducing asthma or allergic flares, improving overall air quality and lessening the chance of coughing.
6. Stay well hydrated
Proper hydration always plays a role in our health. We need water first and foremost to thrive and survive. Ensuring adequate hydration and drinking plenty of water, especially when sick and coughing, can help keep the airways moist, thin out phlegm, and improve health.
7. Saltwater rinse
Generally used to treat sores in the mouth or for a sore throat, gargling saltwater may also help with coughing. It can help thin any mucus secretions and clear the throat from irritants.
- Take 1 teaspoon of salt and place into a cup of warm water.
- Take a sip, gargle for a minute, and then spit the mixture out.
- This can be done numerous times per day.
Avoid swallowing the mixture. Before using this remedy, check with your doctor if you have underlying heart or kidney disease.
8. Menthol (peppermint/peppermint oils)
Limited research has shown a potential benefit, primarily in peppermint oil topically for some skin conditions and orally for irritable bowel syndrome (IBS). The use of peppermint in the treatment of dry cough is unclear. However, menthol, sometimes derived from peppermint, has limited research that suggests improved cough control, soothing respiratory symptoms, and improved sleep. It is often added to OTC cough medications, topical gels, or cough drops. It produces an almost cooling, topical anesthetic-like quality. However, it could make coughs worse if used in excess.
Various research suggests that ginger may have benefits in addition to well-documented GI therapy in managing nausea and as an expectorant (promotes loosening and bringing up mucus and debris), which helps ease coughing. Gingerol and other compounds found within ginger are thought to bring medicinal benefits. They may be far and above what current data suggests. Additional research is needed. However, reaching for hot ginger tea with a mild cough wouldn’t be a wrong choice.
10. Avoid triggers
Sounds obvious, right, but avoiding possible triggers for coughing helps lessen coughing episodes. If you have GERD, for example, avoid known irritants and triggers, including caffeinated and carbonated beverages, acidic foods and drinks, chocolate, mint, spicy or fatty foods. If you are asthmatic or suffer from allergies (allergic rhinitis), avoid environmental triggers, such as dust, dander, pollen, cigarette smoke, or wood-burning fires. It sounds obvious, but this isn’t always a viable option, so having the means to treat a pesky short-term cough is always beneficial.
11. Hard candy
While cough drops are specifically designed to aid a cough, even sucking on an unmedicated hard-sucking candy may be enough to squelch a minor cough. When we suck on the candy, we create saliva in the mouth, which lubricates the mouth and may help soothe the throat and lessen our cough. Some ginger candies may benefit those with GERD or nausea and help alleviate a cough. However, for those with diabetes or other underlying medical conditions, this may not be the right choice for you, and caution is advised.
What about herbs and other remedies?
Many other herbal remedies are suggested in the literature, and websites touting magical properties and claims to cure a cough abound. However, be cautious of any herbal therapy out there. Little scientific evidence supports the use of most products.
Remember, the FDA does not regulate herbal supplements in the U.S. Thus, use caution with herbal products, as quality control and effectiveness are not well-documented or known.
It can be hard to avoid getting sick. Still, common means include practicing proper hand hygiene, covering your mouth when coughing or sneezing with the crook of your elbow/sleeve, and not going out when sick. Further, if you have known underlying conditions that trigger coughs, such as asthma or heart disease, ensure you maintain routine appointments with your physicians and take all preventative medications as directed to keep your underlying diseases well-controlled.
Home remedies for cough
Coughing is a common complaint globally. Often, mild coughs can be self-managed with OTC medications (antitussives) or home remedies, including hot tea, steam therapy, honey, etc. Avoid triggers and sick individuals when possible.
If you are treating yourself at home for a cough but find that you are not responding or are worsening after 2–3 days, ensure you seek medical care. For most people, coughs are harmless and beneficial, preventing or responding to infection. However, waiting too long to have that cough evaluated or letting it progress could mean the difference between enjoying the holidays with family and hospitalization or worse. While common, coughs can indicate serious disease, and failing to respond to home remedies and OTC meds in a few days suggests that intervention by a healthcare provider is key. Don’t wait too long!
A cough is a protective reflex that can protect our airways from debris, mucus, and germs.
A dry cough can be secondary to numerous conditions, from mild upper respiratory infection to allergies or asthma, congestive heart failure (CHF), and gastrointestinal esophageal reflux disease (GERD).
Wet coughs are frequent with upper respiratory illnesses. Still, they can signify more serious conditions such as pneumonia, heart failure, or asthma requiring further assessment.
At-home remedies that may be beneficial for treating a cough include honey, ginger, teas, and other warm, soothing, non-caffeinated liquids, steam therapy/humidified air, or saltwater rinses, and avoiding any known triggers.
Over-the-counter cough medications may be needed if you have a cough that lasts more than a few days and fails to respond to home remedies. However, speak with a healthcare provider if your cough fails to improve or worsens at any time.
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- BMJ Evidence-Based Medicine. Effectiveness of honey for symptomatic relief in upper respiratory tract infections: a systematic review and meta-analysis.
- American Lung Association. Learn About Cough.
- Clinical Otolaryngology. Honey and beehive products in otorhinolaryngology: a narrative review.
- Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Many cases of botulism are preventable.
- Oxidative Medicine and Cellular Longevity. Bioactive Compounds of Food: Their Role in the Prevention and Treatment of Diseases 2022.
- Pulmonary Pharmacology & Therapeutics. Sweet Taste and Menthol Increase Cough Reflex Thresholds.