Coughing may be annoying, but, like it or not, it's your body's way of trying to protect you. When you have a cough, the last thing you may be thinking about is food, but there are certain types of food for cough relief that may ease your symptoms.
Of course, while you're actively coughing, it's a good idea to stay away from solid food until things calm down; but during the periods in between coughing, you can try citrus fruits, berries, honey, spicy foods and chicken soup.
Does Vitamin C Help?
If you ask someone to list the best foods to cure a cold, anything that's rich in vitamin C (like oranges and orange juice) will undoubtedly be on that list. But you might be surprised to find out that vitamin C doesn't work the way you may think it does.
While taking vitamin C regularly may help reduce the severity and length of a cold and cough by about one day, Harvard Health points out that it won't do much for you once you're already sick. In other words, if you're being proactive and taking extra vitamin C when you're healthy, it may help if you do get sick, but it's not an effective way to treat a cold or cough after you get it.
But, while vitamin C may not help much when you're already sick, you may still get benefits from certain fruits for a dry cough. Intermountain Healthcare notes that the thin white layer on citrus fruits (the pith) has antioxidant compounds — flavonoids — that can help you recover from your sickness faster. Some anti-inflammatory, antiviral and immune-boosting fruits, like berries, may not soothe your cough, but can give what you need to help kick it to the curb.
Spicy Food for a Cough
Speaking of kick — spicy foods may also be able to help. Chili peppers, which are used in various forms (jalapenos, red pepper flakes, chili powder, cayenne pepper) in foods, contain an active compound called capsaicin, which gives them their characteristic spiciness. Intermountain Healthcare says that spicy foods can help clear out your sinuses and help break up the mucus that may be triggering your cough.
One very small study that was published in Respiratory Medicine in January 2015 looked at capsaicin to see if it could help reduce the symptoms of a cough. The researchers found that the capsaicin actually helped desensitize the nerves that signal your brain to cough, which can help alleviate symptoms and make you cough less.
There are a couple things to note, though. The first is that the decreased sensitivity was short-lived — it lasted only for a couple hours after exposure to the capsaicin, so to get a lasting effect, you'd have to keep consuming it. The other thing is that this study used pure capsaicin powder, so it's hard to say whether you'd get the same effect from eating spicy foods or using cayenne pepper. But there's no harm in trying.
Read more: The Health Benefits of Hot Sauce
A Spoonful of Honey
Although Mary Poppins liked to call out sugar as a way to help the medicine go down, she may have been better off reaching for honey, which is one of the most time-honored (and inexpensive) home remedies for a dry cough at night. Honey is classified as a demulcent, or a thick liquid that coats the throat, helping to soothe irritation.
The World Health Organization Department of Child and Adolescent Health and Development says that demulcents are high in sugar, which triggers you to make more saliva and increases the amount of times you need to swallow. This also coats the receptors that trigger your cough and can help reduce its frequency and intensity.
Your grandmother may have told you to swallow honey when you were sick, but does science support the theory? It does. A study published in the _Journal of Family Practic_e in March 2013 tested honey on children who had a nighttime cough (from an upper respiratory infection) for more than seven days. For the study, the researchers had some of the parents give their children 1.5 teaspoons of honey 30 minutes before bedtime, while the other parents gave a placebo.
The group of children that took the honey experienced significant improvement in their cough compared to the placebo group. The researchers also noted that an added benefit of honey is that it doesn't come with any of the side effects of over-the-counter cough and cold medicines.
Coughing in Children
There are two things to keep in mind. The first: Never give honey to a child under 1 year of age. Honey contains spores of botulism, which can release a toxin into the body after it's swallowed. Because infants don't have a fully developed immune system yet, they can't effectively fight off this toxin and it can cause serious illness. It's OK to give honey to children older than 1 year and to adults, though, since the immune system is developed and the risk of botulism is low.
The other thing to consider is that, when a child coughs, it's typically a protective mechanism for something that's going on in her body. The World Health Organization points out that children rarely cough for no reason, but advises parents and health care workers to focus on relieving uncomfortable symptoms (like scratchy throat), rather than trying to suppress the cough with medications.
What About Chicken Soup?
Of course, it would be silly to discuss the best food for a cough without giving a shout-out to perhaps the best soup for a cold and sore throat: chicken soup. You may think of chicken soup as a sickness comfort food, but there are actually real benefits to sipping on it when you have a cough.
The broth provides fluids, electrolytes and amino acids that help keep you hydrated, but it's not just that. Broth-based soups help thin out the mucus in your chest and lungs, loosen congestion and combat inflammation in your throat — two things that can help you find relief from coughing.
The chicken has its own benefits, too. Chicken contains an amino acid called cysteine, which also helps thin the mucus in the lungs, making it easier to expel. Less mucus can mean fewer bouts of coughing, since coughing is often triggered as a way to get rid of mucus that's stuck in the chest or lungs. Chicken is also high in lean protein, which can help provide you with the extra energy you need when you're sick.
Is This an Emergency?
- Intermountain Healthcare: "Not Sure What to Eat When You're Sick?"
- Harvard Health Publishing: "Can Vitamin C Prevent a Cold?"
- Journal of Family Practice: "A Spoonful of Honey Helps a Coughing Child Sleep"
- Duke University Student Affairs: "The Healing Powers of Chicken Soup"
- Mayo Clinic Health System: "7 Ways to Combat Coughs and Colds"
- World Health Organization Department of Child and Adolescent Health and Development: "Cough and Cold Remedies for the Treatment of Acute Respiratory Infections in Young Children"
- National Capital Poison Center: "Botulism and Honey — What's the Connection?"
- Respiratory Medicine: "Cough Reduction Using Capsaicin"